After a semester of college and four months of film school, Smith found himself back home working for $5 an hour at Quick Stop, a convenience store. Light bulb! Why not a movie based on the life of a convenience-store clerk? He wrote Clerks in a month and shot it at the store after hours, in black and white. (Cost: $27, 575.) The movie won awards at Sundance and Cannes. "A totally welcome blast of stale air," raved a critic. "Grunge Godot." Smith was 24 and already anointed by Hollywood, but his next movie, the $6 million Mallrats, flopped. Now, at 26, he is back onscreen with the acclaimed Chasing Amy, a witty, trashtalking, politically incorrect comedy on the theme Boy Meets Lesbian.
Chain-smoking in a Hollywood deli, his Falstaffian form wrapped in a thrift-store overcoat, Smith scoffs at Gen X pulse takers. Twentysomethings tell pollsters they are industrious, "to present themselves in the best light. But we're not career-driven. You watch your parents work all their lives, and what do they have to show for it? My generation wants to get the most for doing the least." As for politics, he says, "we'd rather talk about the President's infidelity. Look, the dude cheated on his wife!"
However, like many Gen Xers who forswear the rat race, Smith seems seduced by it. Sure, he still lives in the Jersey 'burbs, with his View Askew Productions only a few blocks from his new condo in Red Bank. Sure, he's invested his profits in buying the local comic-book store. And sure, he claims that moviemaking - especially with his girlfriend as leading lady and a close buddy as producer - is "an easy way to avoid manual labor." But what about the pressure of writing the script for Warner Bros.' big-budget Superman Lives? "I got $325,000 and six weeks to do it," he says. "But I procrastinated, so I had to write it in a week." He is developing a TV series. His next film, Dogma - a satire in which God is a woman, Jesus is black and drug dealers return as prophets - begins shooting in the fall. No wonder he has a tattoo of the Mad Hatter emblazoned on his biceps.
Smith avoids drugs, attends church weekly and wants to marry his girlfriend and have children. "The way I grew up? Talking about sex but not having it," he says. So why is Chasing Amy raunchy in the extreme, crudely anticlerical and sexually flamboyant ( "Archie was the bitch, and Jughead was the butch," insists one character)? Only a boomer fixated on the Brady Bunch would find it puzzling. "I'm a jaded optimist looking behind the doors of small-town America," says Smith. "My generation believes we can do almost anything. My characters are free: no social mores keep them in check." View Askew's Website invites fans for a chat: "Feel the power of communication, as you can actually interact with the losers who hit it big with their movies of smut and conscience!"