A film review by Craig J. Koban
2006, R, 97 mins.
Brian O'Hallaron: Dante / Jeff Anderson: Randall / Jason Mewes: Jay / Kevin Smith: Silent Bob / Rosario Dawson: Becky / Emma: Jennifer Schwalbach / Elias: Trevor Fehrman
Written and directed by Kevin Smith
CLERKS 2 does not so much represent writer/director Kevin Smith returning to form as much as it demonstrates him returning to his roots.
His last film – 2004’s delightful and sublime JERSEY GIRL – was largely considered a turn to unwanted saccharine waters for the indie filmmaker. Clearly, that film was a genuine departure in terms of story and tone from his other quintet of New Jersey, Askewniverse films (comprising of CLERKS, MALLRATS, CHASING AMY, DOGMA, and JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK), but the Smithian fundamentalists should have given their collective heads a shake. JERSEY GIRL was a funny, touching, and charming film about fatherhood, dealing with loss, and raising a child. The fact that it was a cuter and cuddlier Smith film seemed to leave a foul taste in the mouths of many of his fans. While they were banging their heads in frustration, they seemed to forget what a very good film JERSEY GIRL was.
Alas, I saw that Ben Affleck vehicle as a welcome change of pace for the director. Needless to say, when I heard that he was going to revisit his creative well by making a sequel to his most beloved film – CLERKS – I was a bit more than lukewarm to the prospect. His original 1994 film was a finely crafted, low budget farce about misspent youth and how the Generation X’er slacker mentality can often strangle one into apathy. I responded to and identified with the vulgar and verbally spirited convenience store workers in that film, maybe because I too worked in similar jobs into my twenties and also was going through a period of an existentialist funk. Shot for the paltry sum of $27,000, made on grainy 16mm black and white film, and featuring a relative group of no-name, amateur actors, Smith’s first comedy achieved minor miracles in the genre. For my money, it still remains one of the eminent films of twenty something lethargy, not to mention that it was easily one of the funniest films of the 1990’s.
So, with Smith returning to his very humble roots, can it be said that he is potentially setting himself up for a PHANTOM MENACED-sized level of disappointment from his legion of fans? Perhaps. I don’t think that this comparison is too disingenuous. Smith’s films - despite never achieving a level of high box office worth - have an incredibly fervent cult following. Because of this, appeasing his loyal acolytes with a new CLERKS feature might seem like a recipe for inevitable disappointment.
However, let me be the first to persuade you that – even after 12 years – CLERKS 2 is just about as smart, savvy, subversive, cheerfully offensive, and snarky as its predecessor. Beyond that, the film also manages to have a bit of a humanity and soul beyond its persistent string of blue material. That perhaps is CLERKS 2’s most surprising attribute. Sure, it continues the first film’s penchant for commenting on minimum wage misery, but it also manages to be emotionally honest and – believe it or not – sweet at times.
CLERKS 2, in a way, throws a sure fire curveball at it’s core audience. The film’s emotional spectrum is kind of amazing and unbelievably broad. It has a jaw-dropping lewdness and goes out of its way to offend just about any viewer (like CLERKS I, this sequel is definitely a small masterpiece of scatological wackiness). The film, arguably, has an even greater irreverent prowess and is bawdier than the original. Smith and company take great pains to shock and titillate the audience, but on the same token there’s a surprising heart framed around the material. Dare I say that, in a few key moments, Smith is able to modestly move us with some small and poignant moments between characters. It is here where Smith – in my mind – does not often get the credit that he deserves. Sure, a considerable amount of his jokes revolve around human appendages, bodily functions, and strange sexual proclivities, but infused within that is his humanist voice. His characters feel real and the story they’re in feels equally real and – when the moment presents itself – they speak openly, candidly, and honestly. CLERKS 2, for these reasons, is a solid one-two punch. It’s frequently shocking and touching.
The film is essentially a direct sequel to the first film, but many have incorrectly labeled it as the long-awaited return of Dante and Randall to the big screen. The two did appear in cameo form in 2001’s very funny screwball farce JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK. They also were the subjects of a very, very short-lived and undervalued ABC animated half hour show. Beyond that, our favourite R-rated and potty-mouthed Odd Couple also appeared in a sidesplitting short film by Smith called THE FLYING CAR. However, CLERKS 2 does represent their first foray back to the cinemas where they are, in fact, the stars and main attraction.
As the film opens we seem Dante (Brian O’Halloran, whom many think conspicuously looks like me) arrives at the Quick Stop convenience store for another day of low-paying melancholy. Twelve years have passed and he’s now in his early thirties and is still slumming his way in a nickel and dime job. However, before he can start his day he discovers that the store has burned down to the ground (the film is faithfully and appropriately black and white until the fire is revealed and then slyly moves to color afterwards). It seems that his best buddy and “heterolifemate” Randall (the amazingly sarcastic and droll Jeff Anderson) left the coffee pot on the night before so the two hapless 30 year-olds now need to find new jobs to feed their depression.
Fast forward one year and the two find themselves as associates at a sassy burger joint called Mooby’s (which has a cow moo every time the entrance opens). Despite the fact that their new positions appear even less glamorous than their previous ones, things are looking up for Dante. It seems that he has met the love of his life in Emma (played by Smith’s real wife, Jennifer Schwalbach) and will wed her as soon as they leave the Garden State for Florida where Dante will work in Jennifer’s Dad’s car wash business. To complicate matters, Dante seems to have a not-so-subtle crush on his Mooby boss Becky (the effervescently cute and sexy Rosario Dawson). Things never did progress with the two of them, probably because she does not believe in real, monogamous love and that she does not have Jennifer’s wealth or connections.
Obviously, Randall seems truly bothered by the prospect of Dante leaving for good. Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) don’t seem to give a damn one way or another. They now lead reformed lives as born-again Christians (one has a shirt that says, “Got Christ?”). However, their newfound spiritual enlightenment has not stopped them from peddling pot outside of the Mooby doors. There is one newcomer to the CLERKS family and it comes in the form of a fundamentalist Jesus and LORD OF THE RINGS loving teen named Elias (in a tone perfect performance by Trevor Fehrman). He’s shy, beyond sexually repressed, likes Dante and hates Randall, but it’s tough to say what he worships more – the Bible or Middle Earth.
Watching CLERKS 2 (or the first film or many of Smith’s other films) it’s easy to see where Smith gets his inspiration. Being a man that has lived a life entrenched in our culture of Internet chat rooms and bloggers, Smith is able to give almost all of his personalities something to speak out on. More often than not, he gives his characters the chance to engage in endless diatribes that are salty, frank, and naughty to the bone. On a story level, not much happens during the course of CLERKS 2. The story goes predictably in a straight line (c’mon, it’s not difficult to see where it’s going; it’s readily apparent that Dante will be torn between two women and make a choice that we all want him to make), but narrative and aesthetic style have never been Smith’s strong assests. Critics who lambaste him for his lack of style behind the camera fail to realize that this is the point of these films (no style makes the banality of Dante and Randall’s lives more clear). No, the key the Smith’s success is in his colourful and witty banter and dialogue. His words, as spoken by the characters, steal the show in CLERKS 2. As with the first film, the verbal exchanges here are crisp, acerbic, zany, and inventive.
The film is also funny…appallingly funny…throughout. There is one memorable scene where Randall and Elias engage in a hilariously debate on the merits of LORD OF THE RINGS versus THE STAR WARS TRILOGY. Randall blasts Peter Jackson’s films for being suspiciously and latently gay as well as being boring (“All they do is walk in those films, even the bloody trees walked, for cryin’ out loud!”). Like many other Smith films, they are also conversations about innuendo, like the merits of “ass to mouth” sexual practices. There is one terribly disturbing and staggeringly funny moment where Jay does an impersonation of one particular famous serial killer from THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Even odder and more eerily funny is a scene where Elias details his reasons why he can’t have sex with his girlfriend. Perhaps the most hilarious sequence in the film showcases an extended conversation where the hapless Randall sheepishly tries to defend the term “porch monkey” as a slang term for bums, not a racial epitaph for African Americans. Oh, the films also has time for a jolly and spirited musical number done to a famous Jackson 5 song (no one has looked more alluring dancing to “ABC” than Rosario Dawson) and a sick little interlude involving a live sex show that involves…uh…interspecies erotica.
Yes, CLERKS 2 is remarkably foul and earns every ounce of its R rating. Yet, as stated, there is an understated sweetness that permeates the ooze. CLERKS 2 has a pulse and does have the sensibilities to be both randy and sentimental. On top of the raunch is a message: whereas CLERKS I was about wasted youth, CLERKS 2 is about not wasting your adulthood after your youth. This sequel is a love letter to underachievers that struggle to find their way in the world. Dante's relationship with Becky is sweet and well handled and not as tacked on and forced as one may fear it would be. The film's gross out gags are aplenty, but CLERKS 2 has the ability to carve out decent characters that have some emotional weight. Dante, Becky, and Randall all feel like credible people that speak their minds and communicate with each other openly. One surprisingly tender moment occurs where a teary-eye Randall makes one last desperate plea with his livelong friend to make the “right choice”. I mean, films with men fornicating with donkeys rarely move audiences with other quieter scenes with men revealing their intimate feelings like CLERKS 2 does.
I have absolutely no doubts that CLERKS 2 will eagerly satisfy the core Smith fan base. As a sequel to the uproariously funny 1994 lowbrow and low budget comedy, CLERKS 2 is a very worthy follow-up that does not disappoint. As is the case with both films, Smith finds a way to make chronic male irresponsibility wickedly cheeky and unapologetically gaudy. Sure, this CLERKS sequel may not have the sense of originality and distasteful edge and kick as its prequel, but it stands proudly on its feet as a feisty comedy that headlines Smith’s skills with rapid-fire and acidic dialogue, pop culture references galore, profane political incorrectness, and characters we kind of cling to and like. More than anything, CLERKS 2 reflects a bit of a growing maturity in Smith the storyteller and filmmaker. The fact that he makes his characters do and say unapproachably callous and odious things alongside revealing their more sensitive sides is kind of surprising. CLERKS 2 is a return to the well for Smith, but he does it with expert proficiency.