Once upon a time, Kevin Smith was the indie filmmaker that every burgeoning young film geek wanted to become. The guy who maxed out a half-dozen credit cards and mortgaged his entire future on the hope that his talky, bare-bones first feature would take off. The guy who was able to capture and examine the ritual habits and daily conversations of incurable nerds trapped in various states of arrested development. The guy who introduced a nation to the act of snowballing.
A lot has changed since then, but Smith hasn’t. And that’s not a value judgment, necessarily, but rather an acknowledgement that he’s still an incredibly polarizing filmmaker, one seen as a gifted writer or a childish pedant or somewhere between the two depending on who you ask. (You’ll rarely get the same answer twice.) Even as he continues to transition into a fuller career as an on-air figure, thanks to his Smodcast network, Smith is forever one of the most debated ‘90s filmmakers and one that’s still trying to reinvent himself as a filmmaker. Whether those experiments actually worked is something we’ll get at momentarily, but at the very least, you can’t say the man settled.
So, with the release of his 11th feature, film/horror entry Tusk, drawing near, we figured it’s time to look back at Smith’s work, to compare his two decades of output against one another and attempt to determine what his best and worst movies have been. (Mild spoiler: you can probably guess the worst one, regardless of whether or not you’ve actually seen a Smith film recently.) From Clerks to Red State, we’ve debated them all at length and would like to present our definitive list of the best and worst of Kevin Smith.
10. Cop Out (2010)
I’d kill to go back in time and hang out on the set of the 2010 buddy cop comedy Cop Out, if only to see how someone made Tracy Morgan not funny. Because everything Tracy Morgan says is funny. Cop Out, however, is not funny, nor is Tracy Morgan in Cop Out. And, I repeat, everything Tracy Morgan says is funny. How did this happen?
Well, according to Kevin Smith, Morgan wasn’t the problem. “Were it not for Tracy, I would’ve killed myself or someone else during the filming of Cop Out,” he said on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast.
Bruce Willis, however? “It was fucking soul-crushing,” Smith said.
Unfortunately, it ain’t just Willis, either, though disinterest pours from every pore of his grubby husk. Nearly every single talent in this movie — Morgan, Willis, Rashida Jones, Guillermo Diaz, Jason Lee — is wasted, reduced to limp dialogue, stale gags, and indifference on every front. Seann William Scott, as a low-level thief, scores a few laughs by indulging the sense of abandon that comes with giving zero fucks.
Ultimately, Cop Out is just confused: incompatible leads, a clumsy tone, and Smith, simply the wrong man for this job. His lackadaisical pacing and extended riffs feel at odds with the genre it’s (ostensibly) spoofing and clash painfully with the moments of high action and surprisingly brutal violence.
To be fair, it’s the first film he directed that he didn’t also write, and he clarified in pre-release interviews that it’s “not MY movie, [it’s] a movie I was hired to direct.”
Oh well, everyone got paid. –Randall Colburn
9. Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)
Smith has never been afraid to court controversy, and Harvey Weinstein was all too happy to try and drum up business with Smith’s movies that way. Really, any director in his Miramax and Weinstein Company stables could be subject to Weinstein’s word-of-mouth marketing. (See: Bully, The Crying Game.) And with “Porno” in the title, how could audiences not be shocked and titillated?!
Problem is, Zack and Miri Make a Porno is not all that shocking. It’s dirty, it more than earns its R rating, but it’s not particularly gross or offensive. It’s worse: it’s bland and fairly forgettable. It’s actually just an old-fashioned romantic comedy caked in cheap jokes about vibrators, gay porn, uncommon sex acts, and the age-old riff about adult films being produced with zero quality whatsoever. That’s not controversial at all. It’s trite and desperate for attention. Cashing in on Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks’s then-rising star statuses, Smith tried to make a poor man’s Apatow film.
Zack and Miri are so strapped for cash that they decide to make an adult film riffing on Star Wars puns (“Star Whores” … very clever, yes) with penis lightsabers and the like. That’s our Smith! When the titular duo’s accidental first film goes viral, they make a fast feature on the fly. Smith’s comedy goes through predictable beats, from naughty casting sessions to Banks and Rogen finding their feelings for each other to a nice and tidy happy ending. Smith came up short on his nasty promises and his sense of humor alike. You know what’s probably the most controversial thing about this movie? The inclusion of Traci Lords in the cast. Remember when she nearly destroyed the adult film industry by making a ton of popular films while underage? Google that. Carefully. –Blake Goble
8. Jersey Girl (2004)
Look, there’s nothing wrong with trying to diversify your portfolio and show a breadth of scope. Kevin Smith wanted a sweet and salty dramedy about a single dad in New Jersey. That sounds, uh, fine. Not particularly unique, but that Kevin Smith edge, guys!
Is there a moment in this film that doesn’t induce groans? Sappy, derivative, and clichéd, Jersey Girl is a bungled effort. Instead of summarizing, let’s look at the problems. Smith resorts to cloying tactics like precocious little kids, abrupt character deaths, and a wise-talking grandpa telling it like it is (RIP George Carlin). Ben Affleck’s at his worst, Liv Tyler too, and Smith’s dirty dialogue undercuts any emotional truth. You can tell Smith was editing and editing trying to figure out how the hell he made a movie of this variety. The movie was in production forever, getting cut, re-shot, and altered based on star and studio demands; it was 2004, after all, and Bennifer was in full swing.
It was a gigantic misstep for the once-crowned prince of subversive indies. The Smith fan fallout was huge, and Smith retreated to something more comforting and familiar afterward in Clerks II. Smith’s people looked at the film and asked just what the hell he was doing, while the movie went on to get five Razzie nominations. In interviews, Smith took it very personally, talking about how he struggled to piece the film together and how hurt he was that more people didn’t give him a fair shake for trying something different. Fair. OR, and hear us out, he could have made a more sincere film. Clerks II was the embodiment of that adage, “stick to what you know.” And Clerks III is now happening. Good man, Smith! –Blake Goble
7. Red State (2011)
Give Kevin Smith some credit. Aside from Cop Out, the filmmaker’s recent output takes chances that would terrify his contemporaries. Maybe it was the relative failure of a retread like Clerks II or the scars he accrued working on Cop Out, but Smith’s making the movies he wants to make, even if they’re absurd clusterfucks like Red State.
The story of three teens who get abducted by a Christian cult of the Branch Davidians-cum-Westboro Baptist variety, Red State is pitch-black and, to its credit, visually lush. It’s also frustratingly nihilistic: characters set up as leads die quickly and unceremoniously, heroic actions curdle into cruel irony, and a choir of assault weapons burn through a militia’s worth of clips. Jesus Christ, those guns.
Confident writing’s typically been Smith’s saving grace, but Red State’s script is insecure: exposition-heavy, tonally inconsistent, and grasping to make a point that’s bigger and more complicated than Smith’s words allow.
As with Cop Out, Smith wastes a talented ensemble — Melissa Leo, John Goodman, Stephen Root, Badger from Breaking Bad — but this time he has an ace in the hole with cult actor Michael Parks. As Koresh/Phelps stand-in Abin Cooper, Parks turns each of his overblown, overwritten sermons into a master class of acting, infusing a palpable sense of humanity and plausible self-justification into a loathsome character.
Red State was marketed as a horror movie, and though the early scenes evoke the grimy dread of Eli Roth, the bleary POV and endless rattle of AK-47s neutralize any of the catharsis or ambiguity that distinguishes a truly affecting shocker. Too bad. –Randall Colburn