Kevin Smith’s venerable supporting characters, Jay and Silent Bob (played, respectively, by Jason Mewes and Smith), get their own wafer-thin starring vehicle with the curiously titled “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” (against what? the audience?), and the results are — to borrow Smith’s own description of these characters from a scene in “Dogma” — about as compelling as a “Star Wars” movie devoted to Han Solo and Chewbacca. A little of Jay and Silent Bob goes a long way, but it’s tough to imagine any characters weathering this torrent of bad movie parodies, incestuous Miramax references and self-congratulatory insider humor so limp as to make “The Anniversary Party” seem biting by comparison. This reps at least as much of an artistic setback for Smith as “Chasing Amy” and “Dogma” were advances. After a respectable opening fueled by helmer’s devotees, auds should be paltry, with overseas prospects even dimmer.
Like the other films in Smith’s unofficial series of “New Jersey Chronicles,” “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” is set in a continuous universe, with the characters and settings from “Clerks,” “Mallrats,” “Chasing Amy” and “Dogma” roaming in and out of the action to a greater extent than Smith has allowed before. Pic opens on a clever bit in which we see our titular heroes as infants, parked in their carriages outside of a New Jersey convenience store, which is subsequently revealed to be the Quik Mart location from “Clerks,” where the characters were first introduced almost a decade ago. Back in the present, the duo is informed by their pal Brodie (Jason Lee, reprising his “Mallrats” character) that their comic book alter egos, Bluntman and Chronic, are about to be the subject of a big-budget Hollywood action movie.
After verifying this with “Bluntman” co-creator Holden (Ben Affleck, in his “Chasing Amy” role) and reading some hurtful gossip on a movie Web site (called Movie Poop Shoot, but designed to look exactly like Ain’t It Cool News), they set off on a cross-country hitchhike to California, where they plan to sabotage the production or, at least, get in on the action.
With this set-up in place, pic turns from narrative to slapdash sketch comedy and broad parodies of big Hollywood movies: Jay and Silent Bob receive instruction in “The Book of the Road” from fellow hitcher George Carlin, before ill-advisedly trying out their newfound expertise on nun Carrie Fisher (one of a string of “Star Wars” references); they get picked up in the Mystery Machine by the characters from “Scooby Doo” (a parody of a movie that hasn’t even come out yet); and they find themselves the unwitting pawns of a quartet of jewel thief femmes fatales (Shannon Elizabeth, Eliza Dushku, Ali Larter and Jennifer Schwalbach). Since “Clerks,” Smith’s films have been fitted with raw, taboo-bursting dialogue and a sneakily subversive wit that deconstructed a number of Hollywood genres. But this time out, Smith has targeted something — movie franchises and the studios that produce them — that is already highly self-parodical. The result is the first Smith movie that wears its subversiveness on its sleeve — it’s as though Smith has suddenly lost all faith in the intelligence of his audience.
That early-on Ain’t It Cool News sendup really informs of pic’s tone, pitched somewhere, uncomfortably, between parody and self-parody. And when Smith trots out his many Zucker brothers-style movie lampoons (“Charlie’s Angels,” “Planet of the Apes” and “The X-Files” are among the many targets), you’re not sure if his intentions are genuine, or if he’s actually referencing the fatigue of such gags, even in his own film.The mishmash irrevocably worsens once Jay and Bob are turned loose inside “Miramax Studios” (actually the CBS Radford lot in North Hollywood, where the movie-within-the-movie from “Scream 3” was also set), and their odyssey transforms into a phantasmagorical orgy of masturbatory Miramax in-jokes and contract-player cameos.
Wes Craven and Gus Van Sant appear, busily directing fictitious sequels to “Scream” and the Smith-produced “Good Will Hunting,” while Matt Damon and the “real” Ben Affleck kid each other about Affleck’s appearances in such “bad” Miramax productions as “Reindeer Games” and “Phantoms.” This is all supposed to be enormously clever and funny, because Miramax has produced all of Smith’s post-“Clerks” features (including this one) and — oh my — he’s biting the hand that feeds him.
But Harvey and Bob don’t need to run for those rabies shots just yet: Smith has scraped all the poison from the tips of his comic darts long before the cameras have even rolled, so that even his potentially best gags are more self-indulgent than scabrous. “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” has the lazy, bric-a-brac atmosphere of one of those blown-off movies made during down time on some bigger affair. But with its high-end production values and handsome widescreen lensing, it’s second only to “Dogma” as Smith’s biggest physical production to date, which makes its squandered potential all the more troubling. In fact, it’s easy to see pic as exactly the kind of “sell-out” movie that Smith is trying to satirize in this garage-sale spectacle that sullies the raucous innocence of his earlier work.