Not long after the new ramshackle comedy from Kevin Smith lurches to a start, sometime after the 43rd use of the word suck and the 84th reference to giving and getting dick, this giggly, unambitious film kicks into gear as first one character, and then another, declaims, “Fuck Miramax!” Although the words are uttered with the cheerfulness that characterizes all of Smith’s films, rarely has an expletive sounded so much like a call to prayer — never mind that this particular hallelujah is shouted out in a church that Harvey and Bob Weinstein themselves helped build. As with Smith‘s first feature, the breakout indie hit Clerks, as well as his romantic comedy, Chasing Amy, his new film is released by Miramax (under its Dimension banner), which, in keeping with Smith’s George Lucas–meets–Stan Lee trash-can cosmology, has been (type)cast in the role of the Evil Empire, perhaps because the company dumped the director‘s last feature, Dogma. If this behind-the-scenes industry stuff sounds good for a couple of laughs, it is and it isn’t, depending on whether you groove to the forces of good-natured insignificance triumphing over those of inspiration.
As can be gleaned from its title, Jay and Silent Bob involves the two Jersey stoners who‘ve hovered on the periphery of all Smith’s features since Clerks, selling weed and cracking wise. Jay, played by the writer-director‘s longtime friend Jason Mewes, is the motor-mouthed front man to Smith’s taciturn Silent Bob. After a meet-cute prologue in which baby Jay meets baby Bob (“Don‘t you fucking move, you little shit machine,” warns Jay’s mother, feathered hair flying), this nickel-bag Luke Skywalker and Han Solo peel away from their Quick Stop outpost and set off to Hollywood. Their mission? To put a stop to an upcoming Miramax production featuring their alter egos, Bluntman and Chronic, the why and how of which is explained during expository visits first with Banky, the comic-book artist played by Jason Lee in Chasing Amy, then with Banky‘s former partner, Holden, played by Ben Affleck. It was Holden and Banky who created Bluntman and Chronic, the characters based on Jay and Silent Bob, and it’s Affleck (as Holden) who announces that Affleck-the-actor, along with buddy and Dogma co-star Matt Damon, will be starring in the Miramax flick.
If you got all that, you‘ve more or less got Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, a snake endlessly swallowing its own tail. Reality and fiction collide and collapse, to sometimes amusing, sometimes painful effect. After Affleck, as Holden, refers to “Ben Affleck” the star, he and Damon show up as themselves to reprise two other of their former roles, this time from an entirely different Miramax release, Good Will Hunting. Shannen Doherty, who starred in Smith’s Mallrats, pops up yelling “cut” as Wes Craven himself pantomimes loss of authority (or perhaps it‘s autonomy) on yet another installment of Scream, the Miramax juggernaut in which Jay and Silent Bob have made a guest appearance. George Carlin, Judd Nelson, Chris Rock, Jon Stewart and James Van Der Beek all swing by in one form or another, while Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill add ripples to the Star Wars undercurrent. By the time Smith has tossed in a subplot about a bad-girls gang — involving a few dozen laboratory test animals and one of the jokers from Dude, Where’s My Car? — and taken as its farcical point of departure Entrapment meets Charlie‘s Angels, you will be forgiven for wondering, “Dude, where’s my movie?”
Given how diminished Smith‘s philosophical reach is here, he should have made the movie a whole lot funnier. Part of the winsome appeal of Chasing Amy and Dogma is that their juvenile humor was offered up by a searching consciousness, fearlessly delving where few young American filmmakers dare to go. In both, crude riffs on hot lesbian action or Christ’s forgotten black apostle were less the point than the means to get in heartfelt questions about gender and God, fucking and faith and, after it‘s all shaken out, what purpose we serve here on Earth. The jokes were funny in context. Stripped of ideas, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back gets its juice from too many insider winks about the movies and Miramax, and a cavalcade of dick and ass jokes, most of which, pace GLAAD, betray the titular twosome as the most cluelessly closeted couple since Batman and Robin. Most of it’s stop-and-go fairly funny, but only once, in a quick sketch of Planet of the Apes (“Damn youse to hell!”) that easily trumps Tim Burton‘s extended-play diversion, does the humor seem to spring from pure movie love. In nearly every other respect, the film is so lazy, solipsistic and overpleased with itself it’s hard not to believe that this time the Evil Empire has won not just the battle, but the war.
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is a drag, but it doesn‘t make your skin crawl. Woody Allen in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, on the other hand — blech! Although he hasn’t made a good movie since Crimes and Misdemeanors, or betrayed a hint of ambition since Deconstructing Harry, Allen shows no inclination to throw in the towel, even in the face of his own exhausted talent. It‘s hard to get what he’s thinking. Does he actually believe anyone laughs at his shtick anymore, at his high anxiety and desperate, mean view of women? At this point, given that all the films are more or less interchangeable — here, the stage is 1940s New York and Allen‘s an insurance dick, a shriveled Bogart, while Helen Hunt is his discount Rosalind Russell — there isn’t much left beyond spleen. That and the unpleasant voyeurism of watching self-indulgent art imitate self-indulgent life as the writer-director repeatedly plays against younger women. What makes Allen‘s need to cast himself as the romantic hero of his own films even more squirmingly uncomfortable isn’t just the gulf in age between him and his female co-stars, but that he no longer looks even remotely interested. His eyes stay dead whether he‘s trading quips with a stripped-down Charlize Theron or even, as his character puts it, when he’s planting a “wet one” on Hunt‘s frugal mouth.
Allen seems to care little now for new ideas or stories, the possibilities of the medium or his own actors. (The less experienced among them sink like stones.) There’s so little evident pleasure up on the screen that it‘s difficult to see what he gets out of making movies. Professionally dressed by production designer Santo Loquasto and shot by cinematographer Zhao Fei, then glazed sepia, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion achieves a generic period look, but there’s nothing lived-in about its rooms, nothing persuasive or necessary about its time and place — there‘s no longer even a movie fan’s nostalgia to give it some spark, or a reason for being. Whether out of habit or narcissism, an obligation to his creditors or to the undying faithful, Allen shows no sign of stopping. To watch him creak from scene to scene in his latest film, recycling the same stuff he‘s been peddling for the past 40 years, it’s easy to imagine him doing the exact same thing 20 years hence: lobbing duds, and the occasional hit, about Hitler, Mussolini, his own thinning hair, broad asses, big tits, sex and more sex, ogling women who, as of this writing, haven‘t been born yet. At this point, even Allen seems to understand that his movies are no longer about the individual films, or the art and craft of filmmaking, but rather are the effect, the symptom — or perhaps just the compulsion — we call “Woody Allen.”