In a film culture overrun by Marvel epics, wild-stunt action flicks, and other grandiose juvenilia, it is often said that the mid-budget, script-driven movie for adults is becoming a thing of the past. But don’t tell that to Kevin Smith, whose “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot,” a shaggy antic throwaway that premiered Tuesday in the first of two one-night shows at 600 theaters (it will travel out after that in a 65-city road-show release), stands (sort of) as a proud exception to the rule of corporate blockbuster overkill.
It’s without doubt a script-driven movie — not just because Smith, after 25 years as a filmmaker, wouldn’t know an expressive (or well-lit) camera angle if it bit him, but because he remains, in his rowdy stoner never-made-a-dick-joke-he-didn’t-like way, a furiously flowing wordsmith, one who can write the kind of spontaneous sick-comedy monologues that heat up the screen. The budget for “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot” was $10 million, which puts it right at the high end of the scrappy indie scale. And as far as winning an audience of adults goes, Smith has never stopped making movies for the proudly arrested fanboy bro — but the bros who have been following him from the days of “Clerks” are now middle aged, like Smith himself. “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot” is a movie made, more explicitly than ever, for them, and it’s so immersed in the self-satirizing intricacies of the View Askew universe that it’s actually hard to imagine younger viewers being able to decipher it.
It’s a ’90s nostalgia movie that relentlessly tweaks ’90s nostalgia (“Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead,” the erotic idealization of Shannon Elizabeth, the Method Man/Redman weed comedy “How High,” released in 2001). It makes relentless fun of sequels, reboots, and remakes, even though it’s Smith’s version of all those things. Beyond that, it’s a comedy of thin light ripped-from-the-parking-lot (and just plain ripped) characters who have become, over time, almost mind-bogglingly meta.
In this cardboard Gen-X hall of mirrors, Jay and Silent Bob, played, as always, by Jason Mewes and Smith himself, are comic wastrels in the lowball tradition of Bill and Ted or Harold and Kumar, but they’ve been around long enough for the film to treat them as the larger-than-life concocted legends they are. “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot” is a road comedy about how they journey to Hollywood to stop Saban Films — the distributor of the movie we’re watching — from making a reboot of “Bluntman and Chronic,” the film that was fashioned out of Jay and Silent Bob’s stoned-superhero alter egos 18 years ago, in “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.”
The ironic layering doesn’t end there. When Smith shows up as Kevin Smith, raffish shoestring movie auteur (who keeps getting mistakenly referred to as Kevin James), you may think that he’s “stepping out of character,” but Smith, in his comic-book-and-podcast-and-DIY empire, has proven to be such a jovial (and at times, especially when he’s posting on comment boards, dyspeptic) curator of his own public image that he’s now every bit as much a character as Jay or Silent Bob. This time out, he mocks himself mercilessly, razzing the cruddiness of “Jersey Girl” and “Cop Out,” riffing on his ejection from an airplane due to his weight, or tweaking the vegan diet he’s been on since his heart attack last year. As a result of that lifestyle change, Smith now looks like a svelte enough version of himself to resemble a cockeyed Robert Downey Jr., a comparison he draws attention to by popping up, at one point, as a robot superhero named Iron Bob.
And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Smith casts his own adult daughter, Harley Quinn Smith, as Milly, who turns out to be — unbeknownst to her — the daughter of Jason Mewes’ Jay. If Jay were still the sullen raunchy hip-hop skate punk of old, that connection might be too close for comfort. But Jason Mewes, who is 45 now, looks healthier, more mellow, and a touch more tragic than he used to. His Jay has survived just fine, and he still spews obscene insults with a kind of blinkered street eloquence, but his presence has warmed up. We now sense that there’s a human being in there, and the fact that he’s a daddy who didn’t know it, and has to adjust to that, gives the movie a chance to wear its meta heart on its meta sleeve. In Chicago, our heroes agree to take Milly to Hollywood, which allows the film to expand its universe — Milly’s friends, who are along for the ride, include Jihad (Aparna Brielle) from Syria and Shan Yu (Alice Wen) from China — even as it’s tweaking the movement toward diversity.
There are enough actors and characters from Smith’s old films to make this a kind of class reunion, whether it’s Jason Lee’s Brodie, from “Mallrats,” who delivers a deliriously spot-on rant about the dead-end corruption of reboot culture, or Matt Damon’s Loki from “Dogma” (a movie I actually wish Smith would make a sequel to), now born again, or Ben Affleck, who as Holden McNeil from “Chasing Amy” acts with a blithe badassery that has most definitely been around the block. The film’s jumble of cameos range from Molly Shannon and Chris Hemsworth (funny) to Justin Long and Tommy Chong (not so much). The climactic last half hour is set at Chronic-Con, which the film treats as a convention out of Kevin Smith’s imagination, a funny idea that proves, in the end, to be a bit more labored than the rushing-through-the-Hollywood-backlot climax of “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.” Smith has every right to be older and wiser here, and “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot,” with its gentle anarchy and not-quite-mock nostalgia, is a time-machine sequel that passes the time amiably enough. But if Jay and Silent Bob get any older or wiser than this, they’re going to stop being who they are.