A lot has changed in the 25 years since Kevin Smith’s low-budget debut, Clerks, introduced us to the New Jersey convenience-store parking lot drug dealers Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith). Comic book blockbusters rule Hollywood. Cannabis has been co-opted by venture capitalists. Comic-Con, once the domain of the dorks, now receives breathless coverage in the 24-hour hype cycle as kids beg their parents to let them dress up as second- and third-tier Marvel characters for Halloween. Everything is franchise and reboots; there is always a new Batman and a new Star Wars and a new live-action remake of something that only really worked as traditional animation. If these corporate entities are making bank off recycled intellectual property, why shouldn’t Smith (who is nothing if not a tireless self-promoter) get in on the action?
That’s the one-joke premise of Jay And Silent Bob Reboot, in which the title characters return to the big screen for the first time since 2006’s Clerks II. Of course, Smith was doing the whole comics-inspired, fan-base-cultivating shared-universe thing (complete with a Stan Lee cameo) way before the Marvel Cinematic Universe was even a twinkle in Kevin Feige’s eye. In keeping with Hollywood logic, his new movie is both a sequel to and a remake of Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back, the 2001 comedy in which the duo set off to Hollywood to prevent Miramax from making a movie based on Bluntman And Chronic, a comics series (first introduced in Smith’s Chasing Amy) about a couple of stoner superheroes that was inspired by their exploits.
This time around, they’re doing, well, the same exact thing, having discovered that the “old, campy” Bluntman And Chronic movie is getting a gritty remake in the form of Bluntman V. Chronic, in which Jay’s alter ego, Chronic, has been rewritten as a woman to suit modern tastes in representation. To add insult to injury, it turns out that the studio behind this new cash grab, Saban Films (Reboot’s real-life distributor), legally owns the rights to Jay’s and Silent Bob’s names. (Take this as Smith’s tribute to Prince.) And who is the monster responsible for all of this nonsense? Why, it’s none other than Kevin Smith, the hack director of Cop Out.
Casting himself in a self-deprecating dual role goes hand-in-hand with Smith’s tendency to preempt his critics; throughout, characters mock his shameless self-plagiarism, his questionable skills as a director, and his nepotistic habit of casting his daughter, Harley Quinn Smith. In Reboot, she plays Millennium Falcon, the teenage daughter Jay never knew she had; as Jay has Silent Bob, she has a deaf sidekick named Soapy (Treshelle Edmond). The two girls end up strong-arming their way into getting Jay and Silent Bob to take them along to their planned confrontation with Smith at Chronic-Con (har har), but not before stealing a pedophile’s Mystery Machine-esque van and picking up a couple of “youthful, diverse” friends: a mumbling podcaster (Alice Wen) and a Syrian immigrant named Jihad (Aparna Brielle). (It’s not clear what Smith is making of fun of here, but it is mortifyingly embarrassing to watch.)
Although the opening stretch of Reboot sometimes smacks of Abbott-and-Costello-inspired vaudeville, the rest plays out more or less as expected: a succession of crudely drawn-out puns, painfully winking self-references, and underwhelming, listlessly directed cameos, including another appearance from Ben Affleck as Chasing Amy’s Holden McNeil. Overall, the film’s roster of self-effacing celebrities is less impressive than the one assembled for Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back; unsurprisingly, the only ones who really acquit themselves are Tommy Chong (as Bluntman V. Chronic’s equivalent of Batman’s Alfred) and Chris Hemsworth (as a hologram of himself). Somewhere along the way, Jay, Silent Bob, “Millie,” and the rest also end up at a KKK cross burning presided over by wrestler Chris Jericho in a sequence that is remarkable chiefly for its incoherence.
Smith’s sincerity is never in doubt; it’s hard to think of another director (for better or usually worse) who makes a bigger deal of loving his family, his friends, and his fans. But though the subplot involving Jay’s newfound fatherhood is earnest, the film’s only bittersweet insights into middle-age come by accident: Smith, who survived a near-fatal heart attack last year, has lost a tremendous amount of weight (leading to many jabs at his decision to switch to a vegan diet), and the years have turned Mewes’ voice into a gravelly rasp. The sight of them still playing these characters in middle age is unintentionally sad. So is the realization that it’s been more than two decades since Smith stopped maturing as a filmmaker; his staging, pacing, and use of music remain amateurish.
But let’s be honest here: No one who has even considered buying a ticket to see Jay And Silent Bob Reboot needs this review. For the Smith faithful, the writer-director-raconteur’s every-nerd persona is part of the appeal. But in recent years, this fans-only mentality has led him to produce work that barely skirts the edge of watchability. (See: Yoga Hosers.) Awkward and unfunny in exceptionally long stretches, Reboot probably won’t turn his diehard fans against him. But it’s unlikely to win him any new converts either. For that, there’s Clerks, Mallrats, or Chasing Amy.