Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith in Jay & Silent Bob Strike BackJAY & SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK

Kevin Smith's Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, the fifth and reportedly final installment in his View Askewniverse series, is less a movie than a live-action thank-you note to his fans.

Combining performers, characters, settings, and plotlines from Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, and Dogma, his latest creation is the zenith in self-reference, both a mocking and affectionate tribute to Smith's place in popular culture. He rewards his faithful legion with gestures both grand (Jason Lee appears as Brodie from Mallrats and Banky from Chasing Amy) and miniscule (a cameo from Clerks' stoner Snowball); every touch is like a tip of Smith's cap to those who've allowed his film career to thrive. For those of us who've greatly enjoyed the ride, even the occasional misstep - though underrated, Mallrats is still far too broad, and I found the controversy surrounding Dogma more interesting than the movie itself - Jay & Silent Bob is a thrilling, heady experience.

Which isn't to say that audiences less familiar with Smith's work will be totally left out; the movie has the primal appeal of something like Pee Wee's Big Adventure (which Smith's new film neatly pays homage to). The plotline itself is almost ridiculously simple: Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith himself) hitchhike from their Jersey stomping grounds to Hollywood, where they plan to sabotage the filming of the action flick Bluntman & Chronic, whose lead characters were inspired by our slacker heroes. Naturally, all sorts of misadventures ensue, with the biggest sidetrack being the duo's inadvertent involvement with a gorgeous quartet of diamond thieves, one of whom (Shannon Elizabeth, more fun here than in the American Pie movies) actually falls for Jay's questionable charms.

One of the things that drives Smith's detractors, especially ardent cinephiles, crazy is Smith's staunch refusal to better his filmmaking craft; his movies are almost inarguably ugly-looking, and his "staging" rarely reaches beyond a standard two-shot. But in all honesty, I laughed so hard at Jay & Silent Bob that I barely noticed the crummy presentation. The movie has a few bum stretches - the most notable being a lengthy parody of The Fugitive with SNL's insultingly unfunny Will Ferrell in the Tommy Lee Jones role - but each one is salvaged by something hysterical, be it a terrific Scooby Doo send-up or a gratifying cameo from Clerks' Dante and Randall (the brief interplay between Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson makes you wish Smith would get to work on Clerks II immediately) or the best big-screen work yet from Chris Rock. And that's not even mentioning the movie's final third, when our heroes finally hit Hollywood and Smith's movie smarts are so overpowering that the film becomes a comic explosion. (The scene in which Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, playing themselves, insult each other's film résumés might be the most brilliantly subversive bit of self-mockery that the movies have produced in decades.)

Most happily, anyone who worried that a whole film devoted to Jay and Silent Bob would wind up being too much of a good thing - that the film would resemble a tired-SNL-skit-turned-feature-film - will have their fears allayed; they're consistently hilarious. Smith's quiet mugging was rather forced in Dogma, but he's more varied and alert here, and again, Mewes proves himself a foul-mouthed amazement. Who knows if this man will ever find film work again (what other character-type could be possibly play?), but we should be grateful that Smith found him at all; he might be the most confident amateur performer of all time. I won't argue with those who claim that Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back isn't much of a film, but for sheer laughs, both mindless and incredibly smart, nothing since 1997's Waiting for Guffman has even compared.


Woody Allen and Helen Hunt in The Curse of the Jade ScorpionTHE CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION

Not surprisingly, Woody Allen's The Curse of the Jade Sporpion offers tamer, gentler laughs, or at least it does when Charlize Theron is offscreen. Woody's latest, about a pair of 1940s-era insurance investigators (Allen and Helen Hunt) who get hypnotized and forced into a series of jewel robberies - obviously the multiplex's Subplot of the Week - is probably the auteur's most subtext-free work since the early '70s; even (sublime) trifles like Manhattan Murder Mystery and Small Time Crooks had more depth. Woody's going for the rip-snorting, wisecracking charm of screwball romantic comedies like His Girl Friday, but sad to say, he and Hunt don't strike many sparks. Partly, this is due to their rapid-fire exchanges being too wordy (you tire of Hunt's insults before she reaches the punchline), but mostly it's because the duo just doesn't seem to like each other, let alone love each other, and their comedic styles don't match; they could be acting in separate movies. Woody can still write priceless one-liners, and the film's plotting is intricately detailed, even if a little clumsy and plothole-ridden. It's an enjoyable little movie. However, it only approaches the greatness we expect from Woody Allen when Ms. Theron arrives.

Playing the vampish, moneyed daughter of one of the heist victims who views Allen's nebbishy detective as a unique sexual challenge, Theron transcends her previous film work and delivers an almost shockingly funny performance. Her every line reading sounds like a fabulously dirty come-on; she's so up-front about her trampiness and so tickled about the rise she gets out of Allen's character that she's irresistible. You beg for more scenes with her (just as you beg for fewer scenes with Dan Aykroyd as Allen's shlubby boss - his mannered portrayal is a pain). Despite its shortcomings, this handsomely designed Jade Scorpion is amusing enough, and Allen should get to work on a starring vehicle for Charlize Theron as soon as possible.


Penelope Cruz and Nicolas Cage in Captain Corelli's MandolinCAPTAIN CORELLI'S MANDOLIN

Is it completely tasteless to say that Captain Corelli's Mandolin only gets interesting when the Nazis start killing people? This World War II-era romance between a beautiful Greek (Penelope Cruz - ha!) and a lovestruck Italian (Nicolas Cage - ha ha!) is a plodding, protracted affair; director John Madden seems to have forgotten everything he learned on Shakespeare in Love and has reverted to the moribund staging and pacing of his Mrs. Brown. He's also, for the moment at least, lost his touch with actors. It's not just that the leads are badly miscast (as are Christian Bale and John Hurt as fellow Greeks), but they're devoid of personality, simply playing Spirits of Romantic Yearning. The whole damn thing is laborious and silly, and Cruz and Cage don't display an ounce of chemistry; by the time the Nazis turn the idyllic Greek village upside down you might be muttering, "Thank God, at least something's happening." Many, myself included, bemoan the dearth of "classy" summertime pics; if our options are limited to Captain Corelli's Mandolin, gimme more Jay and Silent Bob.

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