But not liking the art doesn't stop me from loving the artist, who has penned some of my favorite comics in recent years (stints on Daredevil, Green Arrow and a Spider-man mini-series that was never quite completed), loves Gregory MacDonald's Fletch books as much as I (he insists he will still make a Fletch film, after The Green Hornet) and gives great stand-up at audience-participation Q&A's. He's so affable and approachable I wish only that he made better movies. Perhaps the reason I disliked his treacly new Jersey Girl so much was because I wanted to like it so much, despite the presence of Jennifer Lopez and Smith's dear friend Affleck, who is a better People magazine profile than actor.
Smith, the most engaging and sincere and candid and funny filmmaker with whom you would ever want to spend an hour or a day or a week, is someone you very much want to root for, which is why his legions flock daily to his View Askew Web site to shoot shit with other fanatics and talk to the man himself, who apparently spends most of his day answering fan queries from the world's largest mailbag. Few filmmakers give back to their fans as much as Smith does, which is why he fears their response to Jersey Girl, which, for better or worse, is the movie on which he appears to have left the fewest fingerprints, despite its origins as a love letter to his wife, daughter and father, who died last year. Critics have had their say--it has been almost universally panned as "sentimental hokum," "soap-opera bathos" and, in The New York Times, "false and blatantly icky"--and audiences paid a meager $8 mil last weekend, placing it fifth among new openings.
What follows is an excerpt from my conversation with Smith, held the day after he premiered Jersey Girl at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin two weeks ago. It took place in a shabby suite at the Four Seasons Hotel; with the fake ferns and dim lighting and drab wallpaper, it looked very much like the set of the old Tomorrow show, down to the cigarette smoke coming from the ultra-light menthols Smith was sucking down. He cracks jokes and screws around, bringing the same spark and wit and charm to a one-on-one conversation as he does to his onstage appearances at comic conventions and film festivals.
It seems that you enjoy the Q&A's almost as much as anything else.
I do enjoy that more than making films. I look at filmmaking as a way to get up onstage and do Q&A's at this point. Because at the beginning it was all about, "I want to make a film." When we made Clerks, it was like, "Let's make it or die." I was close to a teenager at that point--I was 22--so you're full of that kind of youthful passion. Then later on it's just like, "Yeah, I love making movies, but I'd much rather just get up on a stage and answer questions about the making of the movie or shit that happened between the making of the movie."
You're really good at the anecdotes, a great storyteller.
I try. Garrison Keillor with a potty mouth, I've been told. I'm like, "Garrison Keillor?!" You want to hit somebody for calling you that. But the potty mouth kind of makes up for it.
Though he did write that sex column for Salon.
Really? You're lying. [He does a Garrison Keillor impression.] "We were down by Lake Woebegon, and as she cupped my balls and stroked my scrotum I realized..." I can't see it. I just can't see that.
All right. So, Jersey Girl...
Ben and Jen. There are some Jen issues...
It's weird that she's in it, because I didn't notice.
She's barely in it, and in the marketing materials you certainly can't notice. You have to look real hard.
I will say that, like, 22 seconds into the movie I forgot about "Ben and Jen."
I think the highest compliment you can pay is that 22 seconds into the movie you forgot about that. It's been a tough year, honestly, trying to get beyond the fucking backstory that isn't even ours. Most of it has to do with Gigli. First you have to get over that hump of being like, "Oh, they were so terrible in Gigli." And you're like, "Did you see it?" They're like, "No, but I heard." So you're dealing with the Phantom Menace of a movie--if I may bust a Star Wars reference--I had nothing to do with. Then you have to get over their personal life--they didn't get married; they dated and split up and crap like that--before you can bait and switch folks into getting into the theater.
It's weird, because when Jennifer dies, it's the first death on film of someone who's not a villain that people cheer for.
I've been there, dude. I've been at screenings where there have been pockets of "Whoo!" And then other people are like, "Awww," and then all of a sudden they're both out of the movie, and they're fighting, shirts and skins in the audience.
I will say this: I wish there had been more scourging.
I could have done with some, just a bit more. Because now you've got a taste of it. After Mel Gibson gave you two hours, you've got a taste for scourging.
If you'd scourged Ben, I think you woulda...
I think our leading man has been crucified enough this year. You know? There's a sound bite. We are missing out on a little Christ-bashing in the picture.
Well, you've already been there with Dogma.
I have, but I didn't think to beat the shit out of Jesus. That was weird. I was always taught to love Jesus, so it's kind of a weird concept for me, 'cause you just see him out there, Mel... Mel, like I know him. Mr. Gibson...
Well, he was supposed to be in Chasing Amy, wasn't he?
Totally. We wanted to use him, but we had to settle for Affleck. But you see him out there talking about how much he loves God and loves the Holy Spirit and whatnot, and his picture's all about beating the hell outta Jesus. I mean, if I loved him, and I do, I love Jesus, I would make a movie where it's him happy, someone gives him a puppy, people treat him nice and shit like that. That's the Jesus movie you really want to see. Apparently not. Apparently, America wants to see him getting beat up. Don't get it.
I was in Dallas the day The Passion of the Christ opened. We were near Plano, where the dude bought out the multiplex. Right then and there I was like, "This is going to be massive." Who knew? A year ago, if somebody had said, "Hey, there's going to be this movie about Jesus where they beat the shit out of him for two hours, and it's going to make 200 million bucks in 18 days," you'd be like, "You're out of your mind." And they're like, "Wait, wait, wait--it's also voiced in Aramaic and street Latin!" You'd be like, "What is this, a joke? Are there two nuns and a lesbian? Somebody have a duck on their head?" And then it turns out to be manifest: It's true that it's massive, so who knew? Based on that alone, Jersey Girl could make 400 million. Because if somebody had told you a year ago that there's going to be a Ben and Jen movie that is actually going to do business and people might like it, you'd hear the same.
If you told me she died a few minutes into it, I would have told you, well, maybe you got something. You've totally got a hook for that.
The Variety review came out today. Not kind. Everyone got good marks, except me for making it. That's the problem with this movie. And it makes sense. I'm getting judged against my filmography, which...Whatever, I'll take it. It's bound to happen.
Because I have no business making a sentimental film. I should be making edgier stuff. I should be making movies where guys fall in love with lesbians, there are rubber poop monsters, convenience-store workers sit around and curse a lot and don't do anything. That's what I'm supposed to do, so if I make a movie that's sentimental, wears its heart on its sleeve, then I'm obviously whoring myself out to the mainstream. Which is so untrue, but it's bound to happen. I'm going to get reviews like that.
After Jay and Silent Bob, I'm really glad you made this movie.
Totally, right? 'Cause what if I just kept making Jay and Bob? There's a moment, there's a danger where...
You're five minutes from turning the camera on yourself and jerking off?
Pretty much, right? Beware the filmmaker who looks down the barrel of the camera and sees himself on the other end. That's kind of a danger, I guess. But this one is kind of--at least it's not about me. But the weird thing is it's about my friend and his girlfriend.
There was a kid last night at the screening who yelled out, "Where are Jay and Silent Bob?" The 14-year-old kid.
Yeah, totally. My nightmare. When I was working on Jersey Girl, no matter what we were doing, I'd be having a great day, like, "This is wonderful stuff. I can't believe we're making this movie," and in the back of my mind there was always that 14-year-old boy going, "Where's Jay and Silent Bob?" And that's on the polite days.
As opposed to, "Where the fuck are Jay and Silent Bob?"
Exactly. "Where the fuck are Jay and Silent Bob?" Or, "Fucking sell-out." Or, "You've lost your balls." Shit like that.