One for the fans

Silly Jay and Silent Bob spoofs director's own films and more

You don't have to like Kevin Smith's previous films to enjoy Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, but it sure helps to have seen them. For the uninitiated, lanky Jay (Jason Mewes) and his shaggy, silent partner (Smith) are a kind of grungy Laurel and Hardy who put the "dope" in "small-time dope dealers."

The dumb, drug-loving duo has popped up in all of the writer/director's movies: his "New Jersey trilogy" of Clerks, Mallrats and Chasing Amy, his mouthy religious goof Dogma and the "Clerks" animated series, plus several comic book projects. For Smith to devote his fifth film entirely to Jay and Silent Bob at first seems an indulgence meant to appeal only to himself and his minority of faithful fans.

But Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back frequently proves a surprising hoot, with enough inspired gags to make up for the bummers. Inside jokes are plenty and the humor seldom rises above the level of the typical gross-out comedy, but Smith provides memorably pungent dialogue and creative pop references, making J&SBSB more purposeful than, say, Scary Movie 2.

To follow Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back, it's especially helpful to have seen Chasing Amy (which is by far Smith's most mature and insightful picture). In it, we learn that Jay and Bob inspired Bluntman and Chronic, a cult-hit comic book about a pair of pot-head superheroes.

After a prologue in the 1970s that introduces the guys as infants, J&SBSB begins with the twosome stumbling across the news that Miramax is making a major motion picture of Bluntman and Chronic. Jay and Bob are especially perturbed to learn that the film in general — and they in particular — are subject to vicious, scatological abuse online by anonymous geeks. Smith gets lots of amusing mileage from the conceit of the Internet as being nothing more than a vehicle for idiotic movie opinions.

To keep the good name of Jay and Silent Bob from being besmirched, the pair embark on a cross-country trek to sabotage the film. Following a convoluted series of events, they end up being pursued by police officers and a zealous forest ranger (Will Farrell) from Colorado to the Hollywood set of films like Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season.

Smith has announced that J&SBSB will be the swan song for Jay, Silent Bob and the denizens of his interlocking New Jersey trilogy, and consequently folks from all of the films pop in and out of this one. Jason Lee plays both his Chasing Amy and Mallrats characters, while Ben Affleck portrays his Chasing Amy role and himself as a callow movie star. Affleck mugs shamelessly but proves a good sport, as Smith's script rags on him mercilessly: For instance, we learn from a Miramax security guard that a "10-87" is code for "disappearing a dead hooker from Ben Affleck's trailer."

The film also traffics in cameos from American Pie, WB teen dramas and Star Wars — the film's climax shows why its title doesn't echo The Empire Strikes Back for nothing. Particularly when the two run amok on the Miramax lot, Smith offers timely riffs on classic movies, movies released just last month and even a film currently in production. Plus, he makes up for his limitations as a director with a light tone and a fast pace.

But there's also an abundance of jokes involving homosexual acts, which mostly stem from Jay overcompensating for his sexual insecurities (introducing Silent Bob as "my hetero life partner" is the least of them). GLAAD has criticized Smith for J&SBSB, but it should be said that the only gay people in the film are the sympathetic ones from Chasing Amy. Still, Smith can use the gay jokes as a crutch, as if he tosses in a blowjob reference whenever he's looking for a laugh.

It helps, though, that the title characters are such credible nitwits and no sane person's idea of a role model. Mewes is hardly a polished actor, but with his scarecrow frame and rabbity features, you can't say he doesn't disappear into the role: You can practically smell the stale marijuana smoke off his jacket. As a silent performer, Smith is no Harpo Marx, but he's smart enough to know that. Bob's persona relies on underplaying, with rolling eyes and glances askance, rather than complicated slapstick.

Kevin Smith inspires near-fanatic loyalty, I suspect not so much for the inconsistent quality of his work, but because he strikes his admirers as a kindred spirit. Prolific and unpretentious, he likes comic books, DVDs, websites and dirty jokes as much as his fans do, and he wants to give them what they want. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back should amuse moviegoers who don't mind profane or arcane humor, but it's truly a film for the fan base. You can imagine Smith's followers rallying around him like the celebrants from Freaks, chanting, "One of us! One of us!"