Kevin Smith’s “Red State” makeover

The "Clerks" auteur has reinvented himself as an irresistible DIY comic Everydude. Too bad about his movies.

Topics: Movies,

Kevin Smith's "Red State" makeover Kevin Smith (Credit: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

Never has the director of an 80-minute, straight-to-video B-grade action flick gotten quite the level of publicity that Kevin Smith has gotten for “Red State.” This has very little to do with the movie, which reaches DVD and Blu-ray this week at the end of Smith’s extensive self-distribution tour, and just isn’t all that memorable. I finally caught up with “Red State” from the comfort of my living-room sofa and liked it better than I expected to. I suppose it must have once been intended to read as an allegory about American life, but instead it feels like a late-night oddity along the lines of Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof,” a basic-cable throwback that’s simultaneously good and bad. It’s a charming if conspicuously unfinished film, a half-riotous, half-idiotic send-up of the teen horror genre with a vaguely hip political twist.

But Kevin Smith has left the days when he was primarily known as the director of “Clerks” and “Chasing Amy” and other shambling indie comedies far behind. He’s arguably way better at his other job, as a relentless self-promoter and Twitter humorist, a subculture brand name and signifier of working-class suburban authenticity, a bush-league hipster blend of Bruce Springsteen and Michael Moore. Consider the performance-art masterwork that was his premiere of “Red State” at Sundance last January. Smith somehow coaxed the anti-gay fundamentalists of Fred Phelps’ odious Westboro Baptist Church — who are lampooned in the film — to show up in Utah to picket him. (Smith’s subsequent encounters with the Phelps clan have had the flavor of a scripted pro-wrestling feud, or maybe even George Bernard Shaw’s reputed practice of writing anonymous withering reviews of his own plays.) Then, having lured various distribution bigwigs to the Eccles Theatre with the promise that he’d auction off the rights to “Red State” onstage after the screening, he announced that he was buying the movie himself, for 20 bucks.

I have no idea whether self-distribution was a shrewd business move in the short term, although Smith has reportedly grossed almost $1 million with his one-night roadshow screenings of “Red State” in 15 cities or so. But as a long-term play, aimed at circumventing both the critics and the film industry and building his rep as a DIY populist entertainer, it was pure genius. In recent years, Smith has gotten trapped between the indie fringe and Hollywood, and he doesn’t quite fit with either. He’s gotten too old to present himself as the voice of post-punk suburban youth, and simply isn’t distinctive or auteurish enough for the film-festival circuit or art-house audiences. As for his attempts to go mainstream — did you see “Cop Out,” Smith’s ’80s-style comedy with Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan? I sincerely hope not. I’ve largely blacked it out, but it lingers in the back of my cortex, like a dyspeptic bad dream.

Nonetheless, he’s one of those pop-culture figures who has developed a mysteriously large following, which at this point seems entirely independent from his movies. (Before “Red State” and “Cop Out,” his other films of the last decade: “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” “Clerks II” and “Jersey Girl.” You see my point.) On the other hand, maybe it’s not so mysterious. Smith is a funny and likable commentator on current events, a social-media oversharer of intimate sexual details, a straight suburban dude who’s a loyal friend and supporter of LGBT rights. He stands up for the little guy or — in the case of infamously being declared “too fat to fly” by Southwest Airlines — the really big guy.

You Might Also Like

More than anything, to be sure, it’s Smith’s example that inspires his fans. He came out of nowhere almost as much as any filmmaker ever has, making “Clerks” in the early ’90s among the downscale strip malls of northern New Jersey, and through pure optimism and initiative and drive turned himself into a low-wattage celebrity and a highly successful cultural entrepreneur. He’s devoted himself to the nearly impossible task of being famous and also being a regular person who behaves normally and is accessible both to fans and detractors. He engaged in public Twitter battles with journalists over his decision not to hold critics’ screenings or offer press comps to his “Red State” tour, and again I think that was shrewd. He wouldn’t have gotten good reviews in any case, and got to present himself as the rebel who was eluding the pointy-headed bicoastal intellectuals and going straight to the people. (For the record, I wasn’t involved in any of that.)

It might make a cleaner wrap-up to this intriguing episode in Smith’s career if “Red State” were either really good or really terrible. As things stand, this movie is a frustrating experience, which begins as a sharp and amusing comedy about three high-school dudes lured into a religious cult by the promise of four-way sex with Melissa Leo, and then degenerates into a lazy, chaotic Branch Davidian-style siege shoot-’em-up that even John Goodman can’t save. Smith hasn’t lost his ear for crisp, vulgar dialogue, and gets a terrific and highly convincing performance from Michael Parks as the Phelps-style cult leader, who certainly isn’t sympathetic but seems recognizably human. As I’ve suggested, the movie is almost irrelevant to Smith’s new career as preacher, comedian and synecdoche of regular-guy-ness. Maybe the truncated, chaotic quality of “Red State” is a deliberate artistic strategy, and maybe he really did run out of money and edit the movie on a computer at Staples (which is kind of what it looks like). But you’ve got to honor the guy’s ingenuity; he wins either way.

“Red State” is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and other home-video sources.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>