Saturday, February 27, 2010

Cop Out, Kevin Smith and directorial niches

As most people probably could have predicted, Cop Out is terrible. Kevin Smith's first foray into directing for hire, a buddy-cop comedy scripted by brothers Mark and Robb Cullen, is strained, unfunny, horrendously plotted, meandering, and choppily edited by Smith himself (some scenes end so abruptly it's like they've been cut off mid-sentence). But what's interesting is how adamant Smith seems to be about making a different kind of movie, about recapturing a certain style of film that he clearly remembers from when he was younger, the '80s action-comedy in the vein of Beverly Hills Cop or Lethal Weapon. It's completely out of his comfort zone, and all he succeeds in doing is making a lame, unsuccessful retread of those movies that quickly wore out their welcome over the course of numerous sequels anyway.

Smith has said numerous times that he took on this project in part because he felt that after the relative commercial failure of Zack and Miri Make a Porno (which I thought was relatively entertaining) he had taken his signature style and subject matter as far as it would go, and that people clearly weren't responding to it enough. I think in general we get down on filmmakers who return to the same themes and subject matter over and over again, and filmmakers, far more than practitioners of other narrative arts (novelists, comics writers, TV producers) are expected to diversify their work, to take on different genres and to place themselves out of their comfort zones. But is this necessarily a path to great art, or even the most entertaining movies?

I guess this goes back to the early days of Hollywood, when directors were looked at, for the most part, more like hired hands, and thus weren't really given a choice as to what sort of movie they worked on. Howard Hawks is sort of the prototypical example of the filmmaker who excelled at screwball comedies, Westerns, musicals and crime dramas, whatever the studios threw at him. But directors these days who just drift from genre to genre are usually the ones who are the most anonymous, who show up and do a journeyman's job and then move on, and rarely establish any sort of personal stamp. Will, say, Mike Newell or James Mangold be the next Howard Hawks? It's possible, but I doubt it.

As a critic and as a fan, I'm drawn to people like Smith who seem to have something personal to say in their films, or at least a thematic consistency that builds over time. I wrote an essay a few years ago in Las Vegas Weekly about the director as his own brand, using Smith as an example, and here the guy goes pretty much contradicting what I said about him. I don't really have an answer to the question I'm posing here, but I guess it just bugs me that we find it rich and rewarding when people like Saul Bellow or John Irving return to the same themes over and over again, but after Kevin Smith's made a few movies about pop culture-obsessed dudes from New Jersey, we've had enough. Not that Smith is in the same league as Bellow or Irving, but the analogy still holds: Woody Allen is someone who's stuck to his own original creations and his same interests and preoccupations for decades, and a common complaint about his movies is that he's repeating himself.

So as much as I hope for something good from the period hockey movie that Smith is working on right now, or as much as I was curious to see his horror movie Red State that will apparently never get made now, what I really want to see from Kevin Smith is more low-key comedies about dudes sitting around bullshitting. He's good at it, he likes it, and it's entertaining. Why is that not enough?

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