Why Did Kevin Smith Lose Desire to Direct?

May 04, 2012
You probably didn't notice, but there was a very slight controversy after the recent publication of Kevin Smith's memoir, Tough Sh*t, particularly focused on his comments about Bruce Willis.  Smith has taken several shots at Willis over the last few years after the two had problems working with each other on the set of Smith's 2010 comedy Cop Out.  For his part, Willis' camp initially denied there was an issue and hasn't spoken a word about it since the movie was released. 
On the other hand, Smith has claimed Willis is "the unhappiest, most bitter and meanest emo-bitch I ever met at any job I’ve held.”  Smith, who is a notoriously great storyteller (if you don't believe me, watch any of his "Evening" lectures) has gone after Willis a handful of times since Cop Out's release, with it all culminating in two chapters in Tough Sh*t.

His comments on Willis were largely ignored by the mainstream press, as Kevin Smith and his career generally have been for the last five years or so.  In that time Smith has also feuded with:

1) Harvey Weinstein, the Weinstein Company super-producer who had championed Smith since his first film, over the marketing of Smith's Zack and Miri Make a Porno

2) Critics by threatening to charge them to review his films after Cop Out received very negative reviews (which led Roger Ebert to quip, "then they would REALLY have hated it")

3) Studios and distributors with his odd Red State "auction" at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, in which he claimed he would auction off the distribution rights to his latest film but instead turned the event into a lecture about why he was choosing to self-distribute the movie

4) Southwest Airlines, which kicked Smith off a flight for being overweight (though Smith claims he was singled out)

5) Fans of his filmmaking with his claims that he will retire from moviemaking after his next film, Hit Somebody

It turns out to be quite an odd descent for a filmmaker who was once mentioned in the same breath as Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Edward Burns.  After all, Smith was among them as one of the many early 1990s independent film success stories for the Sundance Film Festival when his first movie, Clerks, became a huge hit and an inspiration for an entire generation of filmmakers who looked at his $27,000 comedy and figured, hey, a geeky guy like me could do that.  I know that because I was one of them – I used to swear by Kevin Smith's films, which almost singlehandedly made geekiness mainstream by the late 1990s.  So how did an indie darling go from the next big thing to industry pariah over the course of ten films in less than twenty years? 

After hitting a creative high point with his third and four films, Chasing Amy and Dogma, Smith directed Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, which was more-or-less meant to be a farewell to his well-tread style of vulgar comedy.  The film itself is like a giant Kevin Smith farewell party featuring all of his acting friends, though in hindsight it seems to go a bit overboard with the celebration.  Anyway, Smith intended to follow it up with more "mature" films like Jersey Girl, but Jersey Girl was dismissed by critics and did poorly at the box office (though the real-life drama surrounding the break-up of real-life couple Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, who starred in the film, likely had something to do with that, as did the couple’s previous film, the atrocious box office bomb Gigli). 
So Smith gave up on the whole "maturity" thing and reached back into his well, putting out Clerks II and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, two films that fit in with his earlier style.  Surprisingly, Clerks II actually made less money than Jersey Girl (though it cost a lot less to make), and the disappointment of the latter (which starred Seth Rogen, one of the biggest comedy stars at the time) led to a falling out between Smith and Harvey Weinstein.  Though Smith’s follow-up, Cop Out, was his highest grossing movie, it was critically panned, and Smith's latest film, the horror movie Red State, took somewhat less of a beating from critics but only grossed $1 million in the United States after Smith's decision to self-distribute. Smith has since announced that his next film, Hit Somebody, will be his last and he will explore opportunities in other media instead.
I don’t fault Smith for wanting to take his ball and run home after the critical abuse his movies have gotten and the financial disappointment he’s been greeted with upon every release.  But one mistake Smith seemed to make is that once he built a seemingly loyal audience with his particular brand of comedy as an early adopter of social media he either pissed off that audience by not sticking to the brand or just vastly overestimated his own popularity.  Sure, Smith might have over two million Twitter followers and is well known within the fanboy community, but his movies seem to perennially earn $25-30 million at the domestic box office, so that popularity obviously doesn’t translate to massive box office success.

Now he’s certainly allowed to try something different – he’d be a boring filmmaker otherwise – but instead of sticking to his guns when Jersey Girl disappointed he ran right back to his type of humor with Clerks II and Zack and Miri.  So I give him credit for again trying something different again with Red State, but once that experiment disappointed what is Smith planning to do?

Clerks III.  Yep, but this time as a Broadway play since he’s swore off making movies.  [link:http://www.broadway.com/buzz/160948/kevin-smith-eyes-bringing-clerks-to-broadway/] Once again, Smith is going back to ground he has already traveled.

I don’t dislike Smith’s recent movies (well, except for Cop Out which was awful), but he hasn’t made anything that made me sit up in surprise like Chasing Amy or Dogma did fifteen years ago.  So perhaps it’s just as well that he’s calling it a day.  It’s just a shame that he’s never really stuck with his desire to grow as a filmmaker.  Woody Allen got a lot of flack for abandoning his early comedic style and then got even more for making dramas, yet he stuck to what he wanted to do and found a way to do a little bit of everything.  

Sometimes that initial resistance is great motivation to keep going.

Chris McKittrick is a New York-based cinephile who also writes for Moviebuzzers.com and DailyActor.com. He is also a published writer of both fiction and nonfiction. Check him out on Twitter at @ChrisMcKit

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