I’m one generation removed from Gen X, which means my teenage tastes in cinema fed off the disassociated and sardonic humor of that gorup’s most successful members. Clerks spoke to me about a decade early. I was 16 when Clerks II was released, a story about mid-thirtysomethings figuring out how to make something of themselves after wasting the lead-up to middle age. I guess I’m hitting that point soon. Smith’s series of films between Clerks — including Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back — still stands out as a hallmark run in American comedy cinema.
Everything else after that? Not so much. Smith’s career disappeared down a hole of mediocrity that included terrible studio-for-hire movies like Cop Out and low-budget misfires like Yoga Hosers. Tusk may be his only relative success since that run, and that depends on who you ask. His attention as a creative moved toward podcasting and live shows, cashing in on the reputation he’d built in the decades leading up to the geek-consumer takeover of the cultural economy in the 2010s. Chasing Amy notably told the story of comic artists and featured comic conventions as a major setting; by this past decade, Smith was the hallmark headline speaker at the end of each packed Hall H show in San Diego each year. He was no longer speaking for a (small) subculture – he was a working father in a world he’d helped build.
Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, which once again features Jason Mewes and Smith himself playing the eponymous and iconic duo, has what his last decade of output has lacked — a genuine emotional reason to exist. Smith throws his characters, who are both clearly too old to be standing outside a Quick Stop selling weed and acting like teenagers, on a self-aware adventure that feels like a confession in much the same way his earlier output did. Back then, Smith was trying to express the ethos of a slacker kid from Jersey; now he’s very much writing about what it’s like to have raised a daughter to adulthood and to have ridden his career into a new world where everything he’d done as an iconoclast in the past is now infinitely consumable.
Which isn’t to say Reboot is necessarily filled with groundbreaking material for Smith. The jokes are much the same as before: crude physical comedy, juvenile sex jokes and excessive adoration of weed continue to rule the way. Callbacks to old View Askew movies are fast and furious, and many old celebrity friends pop up to either update us on the lives of their old characters or play new ones.
Smith understands that the world of 2020 is culturally different than that of the 1990s, including what types of humor are permissible. He tries to celebrate increased diversity in popular culture while also skewering its more cynical commercializations, which will work better for some audiences than others. Many of his cruder jokes now feel like aged humor, the sort of thing your, well, dad might say that sounds slightly out of touch, but not in a shitty fashion.
How many millennial audiences, for instance, would understand a gag reference to Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs tucking in his penis and dancing to “Goodbye Horses” (a bit repeated from Clerks II, when it was already charmingly dated)? Certain cameos from previous films actually appear to comment on lessons Smith learned, in particular appearances by Chasing Amy‘s lead duo to explain how that film — which has a dated but still effective story of a man falling in love with a gay woman and being unable to win her — probably wasn’t a story Smith was equipped to properly tell.
I haven’t really tackled the plot of Reboot, which boils down to the two once again traveling across country from Jersey to L.A. to prevent a movie based on comic-book characters made after their image. This time Jay learns his love interest from the first movie secretly gave birth to a daughter, Millennium Faulkin (Harley Quinn Smith) 18 years before. The tone shifts from an ode to extended adolescence and hetero life-mates to one of an old stoner learning he’s a father and figuring out how to connect with a daughter he never knew he had. This movie is so emotionally obvious and GenX that it ends with a needle drop of “Daughter” by Pearl Jam.
It’s that kind of movie.
There’s little reason to recommend Reboot to audiences who aren’t already fans of Smith’s previous work, and even those who hold his first series in high regard might find the reheated humor and blunt emotionality grating and obvious. As someone who grew up with Smith and wants to give him the benefit of a doubt after a decade of disappointment, though, I was genuinely pleased with it. He’s as his best when the dick jokes and geek references are sprinkled over semi-autobiographical tales of men doing their damnedest to grow up and accept responsibility. A winning combo for him that, hopefully, leads to a great denouement with the supposedly forthcoming Clerks III.