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Say it ain't so, Silent Bob!

Kevin Smith is making a film with tears as well as laughs. Will his cult following approve?

January 12, 2003|Bob Baker | Times Staff Writer

The bearded, heavyset guy who walks into a darkened editing studio and starts shoving the two big couches back into alignment looks like Kevin Smith, the writer-actor-director-cult hero beloved for his vulgar, cockeyed yet sweetly human dissections of life through the eyes of the young and disaffected. There's the oversized Brooklyn baseball jersey he wears over a long-sleeved sweatshirt, the sneakers with gray socks, the baggy below-the-knees jean shorts, the Marlboro Ultra Lights, the cans of Diet Dr. Pepper, even the new make-it-yourself snack discovery he offers you, frozen peanut M&Ms.

But then Smith starts watching the assembled scenes from his new movie, "Jersey Girl," which wrapped shooting in New Jersey, Philly and Manhattan in November, and something seems weird. Amid his trademark rapid-fire-wisenheimer dialogue are scenes of pregnancy, childbirth, stinky diapers, school plays and harsh words between a father (Ben Affleck) and his 7-year-old daughter.

Smith, the creator of low-budget, high-wit films including "Clerks," "Chasing Amy" and "Dogma"-- ribald, outrageous comedies that probed the underside of dead-end work, gender wars and the Roman Catholic Church -- is making a movie with as many tears as laughs and a couple of moments that feel almost Capra-esque.

The film has its offbeat twists and wry air. (Only in a Kevin Smith script would somebody at a small-town meeting protest a public works project by warning, "If you tear up the street, Bay Avenue's gonna look like Bei-rut!") But what's unmistakable is that the same Central-Jersey suburban guy who may have inserted a certain four-syllable profanity into his work more than any other filmmaker in history has fallen in love, gotten married, had a baby, turned 30 and is making a comedic drama inspired by it.

Affleck, Smith's old pal who has appeared in the last five of Smith's six pictures, is paired with his real-life fiancee, Jennifer Lopez. If that's not glossy enough, Miramax Films, which is bankrolling the picture, insisted on a more polished look than Smith's previous films and hired Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.

When Smith reacts to Zsigmond's presence by posting a shot of them together on his Web site that refers to "Visually Challenged Director Kevin Smith," his cult understands he is mocking his penchant for telling a story through conversation rather than action. When Smith, during one of his periodic campus Q-and-A sessions, volunteers to telephone the boss of a student who got fired from his pizza-delivery job for coming tonight, the cult understands he is not show-boating. It knows that Smith, a self-described prisoner of Catholic guilt, will whip out his cell phone and follow through in his customary deadpan delivery. The cult loves him because he is the fat kid from the neighborhood of Nowhere who made it on straight-up talent without compromising, who'll never sell out.

And yet, as he edits "Jersey Girl" for release this summer or fall, Smith is conscious that his evolution as a filmmaker and a man is certain to alienate some cult members who revel in the perpetual adolescence his films have often celebrated.

"Every day I work on this, the more I encourage myself to get ready for the backlash," he says during a break in editing on the Lot off Santa Monica Boulevard. He knows some fans regard the presence of J. Lo as a perverse celebrity invasion; he's already bade them goodbye on his voluminous, good-natured Web site, "A good number of the folks who've loved our previous flicks will probably abandon us after seeing 'Jersey Girl,' " he typed in mid-December. "I'll save you the time of having to post this on our Web-board and let you know that I understand you feel I'm a ... 'sell-out,' I've 'lost it' (whatever 'it' was)."

Emotional bond to the film

What the cult can't see is a director who, at 32 with a 3 1/2-year-old daughter and a three-story house in the Hollywood Hills, is finding himself emotionally drawn to a movie in ways he never felt before. No matter how many times he edits this one, he says, he winds up rooting for Affleck's character, a self-centered public relations executive overwhelmed by fatherhood. "I've become one of these dudes who talks back to the screen," he says with amusement. "I'm saying, 'I hope the dude makes the right choice.' "

There's one scene in which father and daughter exchange a certain, knowing look while dad is addressing that town meeting. Something about it, said Smith, brought him to tears during one all-night editing session. A lot of artists could tell you that. But what friends love about Smith, and what the cult has always sensed, is a self-deprecating genuineness that compels him to add a few minutes later to a reporter he barely knows: "The bitch about this film is that you're making a movie about being the perfect father, and you're doing this all night and not spending any time with the kid."

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