Kevin Smith is a total fanboy. Whether you love him or hate him, there’s no denying the proud Jersey boy is a loud and proud fanatic of all things pop culture, admittedly frequently to an annoying extent (those teary-eyed reaction videos). A lifelong comic-cook and superhero aficionado who’s openly admitted he could never handle taking the wheel on a massive Marvel or DC movie, Smith imbues every feature he makes with the kind of colorful imagery and snarky dialogue he grew up loving in the funnies, and nowhere is that clearer than in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. The movie, which turns 20 in August 2021, has been unfairly maligned over the years; it’s actually one of Smith’s strongest and funniest offerings. Sure, the movie is dumb as hell and has the attention span of its eponymous heroes, but if you’re looking for the purest distillation of the filmmaker’s id, with all that entails, this is it.
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is a Marvel team-up movie released long before Marvel team-up movies were even a thing, featuring characters from Smith’s entire back catalogue and even including a couple played by the same actor — Jason Lee portrays Banky Edwards and Brodie Bruce at different points in the movie, with only a backwards baseball cap and slight change in facial hair denoting it’s a different person. Suffice to say, anybody looking for an entry point into the View Askewniverse should start elsewhere since those without a working knowledge of Smith’s oeuvre will be hopelessly lost. Though they can still enjoy the various pops at Hollywood that Smith, a long-time industry nerd who still regularly reads Variety and The Hollywood Reporter just to keep abreast of upcoming projects, is well-positioned to make. The chubby kid who grew up in Highlands, New Jersey might have always dreamed of making it in Los Angeles, but Smith’s affection for the entertainment industry just makes it easier for him to poke fun at it.
Take, for instance, Gus Van Sant’s hilarious cameo, which finds the esteemed filmmaker quite literally counting stacks of money. When prompted to direct by a couple pissed off actors, Van Sant responds, “I said I’m busy” (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon play themselves as a favor to Smith, of which they inform the audience by breaking the fourth wall and looking directly to camera, utterly unamused). Likewise, the late Wes Craven helms a Scream sequel featuring an ape as Ghostface. “People love monkeys!” he reassures Shannen Doherty, also playing herself, who starred in Smith’s Mallrats and likely owes him a favor too. The joke is everybody in Hollywood is a fake-ass stooge who got lucky, but nobody more so than Smith, who had to essentially strong-arm all his famous friends into appearing in his film. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back ends with a riotous alphabetical roll-call of everybody who featured, the number later bested by follow-up Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, for which Smith had an even better excuse to get everyone involved since he’d recently suffered a heart attack.
Everybody is game for a laugh, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back’s ADD-addled sense of humor is infectious right from the opening moments when viewers are introduced to baby Jay and Silent Bob (played by Harley Quinn Smith, the director’s daughter, who would go on to capably lead Jay and Silent Bob Reboot). Yet behind the scenes, the movie was notoriously difficult to make as Smith’s long-time friend and collaborator, Jason Mewes, was struggling with addiction throughout the shoot, making every moment a hardship. None of that struggle appears onscreen, however, with the two real-life bosom buddies delightfully playing off each other thanks to their irresistible rapport. Those who know Smith for talking a mile a minute on a million different podcasts will be shocked to learn he utters just a couple of lines here since Silent Bob is, well, silent. This allows Mewes the opportunity to essentially play himself as a potty-mouthed, sex-crazed lunatic and drug dealer with a gold heart but nickel head, as Smith always says, who just wants to get to Hollywood and stop everyone making fun of him and Bob online.
In fact, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back took on trolls long before trolling even entered the lexicon, as Jay and Bob quite literally hunt down every person who’s said something rude about them on the internet (“What the fuck is the internet?” Jay asks at one point) and beat the sausage out of them — in a clever nod, every single one is a white male, and most are barely teenagers. The movie exemplifies how potent the real-life friendship between Smith and Mewes really is, and how it’s ripe for exploration. One of the funniest and most on-the-nose jokes sees Affleck’s Holden McNeil turning to camera and asking, “A Jay and Silent Bob movie? Who would pay to see that?” Meanwhile, Mewes winks and Smith looks sheepish next to him; the hapless duo is lovable enough to justify taking up a couple hours of your time. They’re dumb as rocks and have little to no ambition in life beyond hanging outside the Quik Stop selling weed, with the annoying Dante and Randal, but they’re far from villains, or even antiheroes. And, thanks to Smith’s sharp screenplay, they feel like real people who exist on the periphery of society — you probably have a Jay and Silent Bob in your hometown and just don’t notice ’em.
The central relationship is imperative here, because it carries Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back through some of its wilder moments, including a brilliantly bizarre Scooby Doo interlude and a subplot involving a team of catsuit-wearing jewel thieves, one of whom Jay falls in love with and who’s played by American Pie star Shannon Elizabeth. Except, in this case, she’s completely covered up, in the least sexy outfit of the entire gang, and wears chunky specs most of the time too, deliberately subverting Elizabeth’s sexpot image and giving the actress an opportunity to shine in her own right. Listing the movie’s disparate elements gives the impression that it’s this slapdash, strung together mess of stuff, but Smith’s story is laser-focused and linear thanks predominantly to its simplicity. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is joyful and silly, colorful and wacky, with a surprisingly sweet core — broken down to its basest form, this is a film about friendship and, at a push, the importance of owning your IP. None of it should work, and yet most of it does thanks to the writer-director’s sheer force of will and enthusiasm. He’s like a kid in a candy store, blatantly delighted about being given the opportunity to make movies.
Although Smith plays a stoner, he didn’t begin smoking marijuana until Zack and Miri Make a Porno, when weed enthusiast Seth Rogen introduced him to it. The filmmaker has argued that he does his best work while high but, although the criminally underrated body horror Tusk was infamously the product of a session. Based on this evidence, Smith doesn’t need anything extra to concoct vividly crazy stories. He’s often criticized for keeping the camera static, but Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is dynamically captured, while the score by Smith’s long-time collaborator James L. Venable is terrific, a selection of jaunty horns often punctuating Bob’s increasingly frustrated miming. At one point, a choir of voices sings, “Justice is dead…or so Jay thinks,” a silly detail likely nobody noticed on first watch, but one that Smith cared enough to put in there. Clearly a lot of love and attention went into making this something beyond just another dumb road trip movie. Compared to Road Trip or even Harold & Kumar, the jokes are surprisingly tame. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back teeters right on the edge of gross out but never quite crosses the line. Even though Jay and Bob’s central preoccupation is “weed dick and fart jokes,” as Holden puts it, there’s a childlike innocence to them, exemplified when they express affection for a cow sound in Mooby’s, and the fact Jay is consistently referred to as “little kid” throughout the movie.
Although the titular duo are the heroes of the piece,Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is filled to a bursting point with hilarious cameos, including Mark Hamill (who gets a proper introductory title because Smith is that much of a Star Wars nerd), Chris Rock (as a director named Chaka Luther King who’s a bit like Spike Lee without any subtlety whatsoever), George Carlin (as a hitchhiker), the late Carrie Fisher (as a nun), Tracy Morgan (as a dealer who’s involved in one of the funniest jokes Smith has ever written about drug pushers being unionized) and Seann William Scott (also playing against type as a dopey goody-goody). Will Ferrell steals every scene he’s in as a well-meaning federal wildlife marshal who’s consistently outsmarted by Jay and Bob, while Affleck pokes fun at himself by anonymously answering a radio call about Ben Affleck having a dead hooker in his trailer, a reference to a real-life scandal in which the actor was embroiled — clearly, Smith’s friends aren’t safe either. Morris Day and The Time even triumphantly plays the film out, chiefly because Morris and Jerome’s friendship was the model for Jay and Bob, which again signifies how surprisingly wholesome this whole endeavor is.
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back has not been critically well-received, garnering a 53 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. However, the audience score is up at 75 percent, suggesting that Smith fans sought it out and enjoyed every little nerdy reference, from the Buddy Christ on the dashboard to nods to some of the director’s favorite movies, including Reservoir Dogs, E.T., Planet of the Apes and, of course, Jaws. There’s also, obviously, a ton of Batman stuff with two future Caped Crusaders even included among the cast (Diedrich Bader and Affleck). The film-within-a-film is being made because the superhero boom has just kicked off with the arrival of X-Men, yet Smith still correctly predicts that soon studios will be buying up every property they can find. Likewise, online forum Movie Poop Shoot is a precursor for the scum and villainy of Film Twitter, notably populated by “militant movie buffs.” Even so, in this comic-book movie that isn’t really a comic-book movie, Jay and Bob sit the big fight out, totally nonplussed by the bullets landing right next to their heads.
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back isn’t Kevin Smith’s most accomplished film, but it is his love letter to the industry, fellow movie fans like himself and particularly everyone who’s been good enough to watch the director’s output over the years. There are tons of references for superfans, but there are also plenty of jokes that are genuinely great in their own right too — “I can’t believe Judi Dench played me!” is one of the last, and best, lines in the entire movie. Smith demonstrates his undeniable skills as a storyteller and filmmaker by staying true to himself, and although doing so will continue to make him an acquired taste, for those who are along for the ride, there’s no better example of everything that makes the filmmaker so fascinating than this weirdly great movie.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.
Categories: 2000s, 2021 Film Essays, Comedy, Featured