Kevin Smith. What can you say about him that has not already been said? If you are a Generation X-er, your answer would probably be “not much.” His appeal may be limited to a certain niche that were in their early to mid 20s when he first entered the Indie film scene with his surprise smash hit, Clerks, but it’s a niche which has been nothing if not vociferously passionate. His fans have followed his various forays in genre filmmaking, some more successful than others, yet it is arguably the cinematic universe he created known as the View Askewniverse for which he is most renowned.
So, in celebration of Clerks’ 25th Anniversary, along with the release of Smith’s latest entry, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, which is currently having a roadshow tour around the world, I thought I would compile a list of the top 10 View Askewniverse works. Do any of them still hold the test of time a quarter of a century later, or are they merely pedestrian products of a former convenience store employee who got lucky? Let us not waste any more time and find out! Snootchy Bootchies!
10. Jay and Silent Bob’s Groovy Super Cartoon Movie (2014) – Written by Smith and released direct to DVD, this is an animated adaptation of some graphic novels he wrote about Jay and Silent Bob’s antics as their heroic alter egos, Bluntman and Chronic (first introduced in Chasing Amy). It has its share of crude sex jokes, drug humor and bodily gags, but none of the wit or charm found in his other works. The plot, running at a thankfully short 63 minutes, meanders in episodic fashion serving as an excuse for characters to engage in gross antics, like a supervillain, Dick Head (ho ho), whose head is shaped like an uncircumcised penis and has ejaculating superpowers.
Any joke that would theoretically work is sadly foiled by the film’s lackluster animation, which looks like it was done by a group of first-year film students on a budget of five bucks, its rigid character expressions and poor lip-synching undermining any possible laugh the audience could get. One does not expect a Jay and Silent Bob cartoon to look like Disney, but even the animated series was more appealing to look at than this. The closest it gets to at least a smile from me is the casting of fantasy writer Neil Gaiman as Jay and Silent Bob’s brushed off Alfred-esque butler, as well as a few asides from Smith himself during the film. But other than that, this is a real stinker, one fans should not even bother to check out.
9. Mallrats (1995) – Smith’s follow-up to Clerks shares a similar premise in that it follows two slackers in a day of their lives, this time lounging at the mall as opposed to a convenience store, as they attempt to win their girlfriends back. Pitched as a “clever Porky’s” to the public, perhaps Smith and the studio should have considered omitting the “clever” part.
Attempting to channel John Hughes and John Landis, Smith sadly loses his distinct voice somewhere in the film, which ends up feeling less like a Kevin Smith movie than one of Todd Phillips’ wannabe 80s frat comedies. Even worse, it is just a mostly joyless experience to watch two instantly unlikable protagonists, their narcissistic behaviors leaving them little to no redeemable qualities, with the exception of Jason Lee (in a first collaboration with Smith) getting a few laughs from his one-liners in the film’s climax.
There are also a few bright spots in the form of a memorably charming cameo from Stan Lee in which he imparts romantic advice to Lee’s Brodie through Marvel analogies. There is also a funny recurring gag involving a fellow shopper’s (Ethan Suplee) obsession with staring at a 3D picture, struggling to locate the object concealed within, despite everyone else easily recognizing it (“That looks like a sailboat!”).
This movie may have a cult audience, but the laughs are far and few between, the characters are not that memorable, or even pleasant to be around, and I would honestly recommend other View Askewniverse works before getting to this one.
8. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001) – After four movies and a short-lived television series, Smith planned on closing his View Askewniverse with a bang by giving his title characters their own film after having played supporting roles in all of the previous works. The story has Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) heading to Hollywood with the intent of stopping the shooting of a Bluntman and Chronic movie, crossing paths with lesbian jewel thieves, a lab test monkey they christen Susanne, celebrity cameos galore, and inadvertently become the most wanted men in America.
It is sort of like a cross between Beavis and Butthead Do America and The Blues Brothers, though it sadly fails to reach the heights of either film. The comedy isn’t as consistent here as in Beavis, nor does it top the memorable bombast of Blues Brothers. It gets a few laughs, in spite of the gay jokes overstaying their welcome, primarily through Will Ferrell as a hapless wildlife ranger on the hunt for the fugitives, as well as some celebrities, such as Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Gus Van Sant joyfully poking fun at themselves.
Plus, it is nice to see plenty of the Askewniverse alumni making what everyone thought would be one last return, reprising characters not only from Clerks, but Mallrats, Chasing Amy and Dogma as well. It is only a shame that it could not be in a stronger film, but lucky for us, Smith would find his cinematic world calling back to him.
7. Jay and Silent Bob Reboot (2019) – The latest entry in the View Askewniverse series, as well as a direct sequel to Strike Back, this one’s plot is similar to the aforementioned predecessor, albeit with a few surprise twists and turns. Part of the fun comes from the movie’s self-acknowledgment of its similarities to the previous film, as well as mocking the overwhelming number of reboots Hollywood has been churning out this past decade.
It is also neat to see these characters again after over a decade and to see them not only coping with the changing times, displayed most humorously by Silent Bob conveying his thoughts via emoticons on his cell phone, (he believes the eggplant is a sign of being a vegan) but how they have grown and evolved since we last saw them. The most dramatic development comes from Jay’s story arc, lending a touch of poignancy we never would have expected from this character back in 1994.
The film tries to be more meta than the first one, sometimes successfully (at one point, Jay and Silent Bob encounter the cast of Clerks in their black and white form), other times not so much (an early reference to a real-life incident involving Smith being forcibly removed off a plane due to his excessive weight at the time is a groaner). The movie also suffers from a clumsy climax but ends on a sweet note that leaves you feeling enough goodwill for the characters; you’ll certainly be rewarded if you are a longtime fan.
6. Zack and Miri make a Porno (2008) – This may count as cheating, as it is not set in New Jersey, nor features Jay and Silent Bob. However, it includes Justin Long playing a porn actor, going on to reprise this role in Reboot, as confirmed by Smith, so this movie is technically considered part of the same cinematic universe. But even if it was not, it would still be regarded as one of Smith’s better comedies, reveling in the profane and gross humor while having a sweet heart amidst its dirty sex jokes.
The plot sees Pittsburgh best friends, Zack and Miri (Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks) inspired to make a porno in order to clear all living expenses. They agree to not let the project affect their friendship in any way, but before you can say Star Whores, sparks begin to fly between them.
The film crew they gather together (which includes regular Smith alumni Mewes and Jeff Anderson), bring a natural likability, as well as a few quirks to their characters as a means of compensating for their lack of depth. The funniest one of them is Zack’s co-worker turned producer (Craig Robinson), who you can read from his dour expression the toll his loveless marriage has taken on him.
Rogen and Banks also share an easy, cute chemistry so that even when the film follows the familiar story beats, we like them enough that we want to see them share a happy ending. It is no classic, but it is one of the rare sex comedies that will leave your heart with a warming glow.
5. Clerks: The Animated Series (2000) – Again, this might be considered cheating, but seeing how all six episodes of the short lived sitcom were put together in a DVD complete with an MPAA rating, I figured I would allow this one too. An animated spinoff of the classic film, the show was cancelled due to low marketing, poor scores from test audiences, and network executives left scratching their heads at what in the hell they were watching.
Which is a pity, because it features some of the funniest gags in any of the View Askewniverse works. Fully embracing the medium, the writers revel in their anarchic deconstruction of TV tropes, twisting them around like a hallucinogenic pretzel. Notable highlights include the second episode being a clip show, not only repeatedly showing the same footage from the pilot, but also completely fabricated footage, as well as the series finale in which Dante and Randall are determined to stay in the store, despite the universe conspiring against them in increasingly bizarre fashion.
Whether this show could have maintained its freshness for another season remains a mystery, but for what we got, it has enough Charles Barkley and a Hans Gruber-esque Alec Baldwin to keep you entertained from start to finish.
4. Clerks 2 (2006) – When Strike Back was released, Smith declared it the closing chapter in his epic cinematic universe, ready to move on with other standalone features. But following the critical and commercial disappointment of Jersey Girl, Smith found himself itching to return to familiar grounds. Which he did with, appropriately, Clerks II, by focusing on Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randall (Anderson) working at a Mooby’s fast-food restaurant after the Quick Stop burns down.
After making increasingly ambitious films with Dogma and Strikes Back, it is enjoyable to see Smith returning to his handheld, low-budget roots from a dozen years prior, although the film is colorized as opposed to black and white (with the exception of the opening and closing scenes). However, it is not a mere retread of the original, but an insightful look into what our favorite characters have been up to since we last saw them in their 20s.
Having aged well beyond their 30s, the film is at its best when it shows our protagonists struggling to cope with adulthood responsibilities and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. Dante is engaged, but Randall does not want him to move to Florida, pining for the good old days where it was just the two of them, back “when the world was in front of us.” It has its fair share of shock humor, culminating in an infamous donkey show which (thankfully) leaves enough to the imagination, but the resolution is a surprisingly touching and fitting outcome, bringing the story full circle.
Like Reboot, it shows Smith growing up with his characters without betraying their essence. They may still be juvenile, vulgar and irresponsible, but they are not kids anymore. Smith has announced plans to develop a Clerks III, but even if it never gets made, Clerks II would be a touching sendoff for Dante and Randall.
3. Chasing Amy (1997) – Smith’s return to form after the disastrous performance of Mallrats, Chasing Amy has been deemed his best by fans for decades. It certainly ranks high up there, even if it has not completely stood the test of time. The story involves a famed comic book writer (Affleck) falling for a lesbian (Joey Lauren Adams), much to the disapproval of his best friend and inker (Lee).
The film could easily have been a formulaic romantic comedy, with Adams being objectified and Affleck hopelessly pining after her, with hijinks straight out of a sitcom. But Smith, perhaps learning from his experiences on Mallrats, wisely chooses not to go in that direction and instead derives his humor from the sharp dialogue, arguably containing some of the best lines in all his films. Through these memorable exchanges, Smith crafts an enriching portrait of his three central figures as they struggle coming to terms with their relationships to one another, as well as dark secrets uncovered.
Although the story takes turns that are extremely problematic through an LGBTQ lens, it mostly holds up due primarily to the solid arcs, fully elevated by Affleck, Adams, and Lee, each giving career-best performances. The film’s climax takes an unexpected turn, one which forces the characters to confront uncomfortable personal truths. For all its faults, Chasing Amy stands out as the feature that would distinguish Smith from a typical writer gleefully spouting four-letter words and crude sex humor as one of the seminal American indie directors of the 90s.
2. Clerks (1994) – The one that started it all, Smith’s Clerks still stands as one of the most notable and highly regarded American Indie films of the 90s. There is something about this movie that seems to carry through still a quarter of a century later, despite its minuscule budget and cast of unprofessional actors. Perhaps it is because of its astute awareness of the strange and infuriating people some of us, including yours truly, have encountered in the field of customer service.
Perhaps it is also because its two leads are so relatable. So many of us connect to either Dante, the one with a pragmatic state of mind, but whose indecisiveness prevents him from reaching total maturity, or Randall, someone who never conceals his contempt for the patrons at the video store and lives with a devil-may-care attitude, albeit one that proves a bit reckless for both himself and everyone around him.
Or maybe it is through the dialogue, whose profanity-laced insights into relationships, life and pop culture would make the characters feel like lived-in, real people, instead of merely caricatures spouting swear words for shock effect. Or perhaps it is the fluid synthesis of these components which help Clerks serve as a rite of passage for kids entering their 20s into a world that is complicated, infuriating and often downright mysterious. Whatever the reason may be, this is a film that will always prove relevant to future filmmakers based on its ingenious storytelling through limited finances as well as its timeless observations of directionless youth in a consumerist environment, although I am sure successive generations may require clarity on what a VHS is.
1. Dogma (1999) – I must confess that I had seen very few entries in the View Askewniverse prior to writing this list. As I was going through them one by one, I was convinced that Clerks would remain the best of the bunch. That is, until I saw Dogma. It is one of those movies I instantly fell in love with, deeming it among Smith’s very best.
Granted, I am aware that it did not have an ecstatic critical reception upon release, nor do Smith fans necessarily share the same level of enthusiasm that I hold for this one. So why do I love it so much? I believe it is because of how he takes the premise, which follows the standard story of a select group of heroes tasked an epic quest to save the world (or in this case existence) from the forces of evil, and fills it with strong dialogue and an eclectic cast. Much like Chasing Amy, the writing and performances go hand in hand to create memorably entertaining characters with everyone given a moment to shine.
Comedians like Chris Rock and the late George Carlin are put to better use here than in Strike Back as, respectively, a disgruntled Apostle and a Cardinal whose bravado matches a charismatic showman more than a man of the cloth. Other standouts include Lee as the nefarious mastermind behind the plan to direct two former angels into a New Jersey church and reenter Heaven with a morally clean slate, indirectly causing existence itself to cease. But it is the late, great Alan Rickman who almost steals the show, getting plenty of the film’s biggest laughs while maintaining dignity and gravitas as Metatron, the Voice of God.
What makes our heroes and villains so solid is their collective crisis of faith as everyone shares painful experiences in receiving the short end of the stick from God Himself. They all differ in their responses, either willing to save Creation in spite of their personal sufferings or destroy everything because of their grievances. Their backstories and conversations about God convey a mystical world greater than what we witness in the film itself, reminiscent to how George Lucas used expository dialogue to establish his universe in the original Star Wars.
It is ironic that Dogma was attacked by several religious groups, including the Catholic League, because when you watch the film, it does not really mock Christianity. If anything, it has more fun with satirizing the way organized religion interprets God’s teachings to fit their narrow-minded views. As for Christianity itself, it is actually an inspiring interpretation of inclusivity on Smith’s part; he conjectures that one of Jesus’s apostles, as well as Christ himself, could have been black, or that a muse could be Hispanic (portrayed by Selma Hayek), or that God might actually be a woman (whether She is, I will not spoil for you).
Through a more sure footing in the fantasy-adventure genre from Smith as opposed to the teen comedy of Mallrats, a fantastic ensemble (with the exception of Affleck as one of the angels, who is not quite able to convincingly channel the turn his role takes), as well as an engaging storyline that is the closest Smith might ever come to making a Star Wars film, not to mention a feces-engulfed demon to boost, Dogma is a holy blast, one which has something for everyone whether you are a believer or not of the Church of the View Askewinverse.