A film review by Craig J. Koban December 22, 2022

CLERKS III  jj
 

2022, R, 100 mins.

Jeff Anderson as Randal Graves  /  Brian O'Halloran as Dante Hicks  /  Jason Mewes as Jay  /  Kevin Smith as Silent Bob  /  Rosario Dawson as Becky  /  Marilyn Ghigliotti as Veronica Loughran  /  Trevor Fehrman as Elias Grover  /  Jennifer Schwalbach Smith as Emma  /  Austin Zajur as Brian  /  Scott Schiaffo as Chewlie's Rep  /  Justin Long as Nurse  /  Harley Quinn Smith as Milly

Written and directed by Kevin Smith
 

 

 

In many respects, I've grown up in real time with Randal Graves and Dante Hicks, who both began their movie lives in minimum wage convenience store hell in writer/director Kevin Smith's CLERKS.  

That 1994 micro budgeted and grainy black and white shot indie personally spoke to me all those years ago because - like the two main slacker characters that dominated it - I was the same age at the time and worked at a low rent mom and pop video store.  I felt that, yes, this was a film made directly for me and for every other Gen Xer that experienced the existentialist funk of being in your twenties and slaving away at a zero respect job frequented by daily patrons that slowly drove you nuts.  I remember writing in my ten year retrospective review for CLERKS in 2004 that Smith's rookie effort - shot for $27,000 with 16mm stock and featuring no-name, amateur actors - was one of the "eminent films of twentysomething lethargy" and was "easily one of the funniest films of the 1990s."  

I still feel that way.   

CLERKS was undeniably a trailblazer and punctured the pop culture milieu in ways that view films of its small stature have, and it established and propelled Smith's career forward.  After early post-CLERKS creative setbacks in MALLRATS, Smith peaked with CHASING AMY and DOGMA in the late 90s before unavoidably returning to the cinematic universe (yup, he did this well before the MCU!) concerning those Quick Stop employees with 2006's CLERKS II, which was a surprisingly novel and undervalued sequel that reintroduced Dante and Randal in their 30s and being forced to - gasp! - wallow away at a fast food restaurant after their convenience store was destroyed in a fire.  That sequel had a superb ending with the pair going back to their old jobs, but this time as owners of the rebuilt Quick Stop.  

Now comes CLERKS III, coming out a long 16 years after the first sequel and with Smith showing these men dealing with middle age woes.  Dante and Randal are in their mid-to-late 40s in this sequel, and it has certainly been compelling to journey with them over the course of three films that span nearly thirty years.  CLERKS III is not without laughs and Dante and Randal are just as loveable as troublemaking misfits as ever, not to mention that Smith dives into some extremely heavy meta territory with his story (more on that in a bit).  However, one of the larger conundrums that exists now with this follow-up in the View Askewniverse is one of creative desperation and lazily going back to the well.  After the very funny and cleverly scripted CLERKS II (which would have been a pitch perfect series closer), CLERKS III by comparison struggles in finding reasons for existing. 

To be fair, though, it's still a giddy nostalgic trip to meet back up with Brian O'Halloran's Dante (who looks more like me now than he did in his twenties) and Jeff Anderson's Randal and return back to their old haunts.  When they're not engaging in impromptu rooftop hockey they're doing what they can to stave off boredom while engaging in the daily grind of keeping their Quick Stop open for business.  We also meet back up with Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), who are revealed to be the new owners of the old video store that was next door, but they've now turned it into a pot dispensary (one of the funnier bits in the film is that these two boobs still try to maintain a veil of secrecy in selling marijuana despite the fact that recreational usage of it is now legal in New Jersey).  Also returning for frequent visits is Elias (Trevor Fehrman), whom you may remember was the hard core Christian and LORD OF THE RINGS fanboy that once worked with Randal and Dante at the McDonalds-esque Mooby's in CLERKS II ("There's only one return, okay, and it's not of the king...it's of the Jedi!").  Randal remains as childishly sarcastic as ever despite his advancing years, whereas Dante is still in mourning for the sudden death of his wife, Becky (the always welcoming presence of Rosario Dawson), leaving him a widow lacking in purpose.  She does appear in Force ghost-like visions to her hubby throughout the film, and every scene between Dawson and O'Halloran are easily the finest acted because of the chemistry they shared in CLERKS II remaining nearly two decades later. 

On one random day, tragedy strikes when Randal suffers from a massive heart attack, leading to him being rushed to the hospital and nearly dying.  He suffered what his doctor (played in a fun cameo by Amy Sedaris) has eerily described as a "widow-maker" heart attack, seeing as so very few that have had one make it out alive (rather amusingly, Randal seems less worried about dying than he is about exposing his groin for being prepped for surgery, because he doesn't want anyone to know how small of a penis he actually has).  Randal does make it out alive, but the whole ordeal has thoroughly rocked his world ("My whole life flashed before my eyes...and it sucked!").  Wanting to give his existence some much need newfound purpose, he decides that he should make a low budget movie about his and Dante's times working at the Quick Stop for so many years ("I've never seen an entire flick set in a convenience store," he rather ironically muses).  As he preps funds, hires his crew and cast, and begins his shoot Dante starts to have reservations about having half of his life experiences being put on screen for all to watch, which leads to emotional obstacles between the friends unlike any before. 

 

 

CLERKS III scores points for pure throwback merriment in its early stages.  It's enjoyable going back to the Quick Stop and seeing how these men have not only matured (yeah, they're definitely looking their age now), but to also see how the years have affected them.  I enjoyed the earlier handling of Elias in this sequel, whose God fearing man has now turned to Christian Crypto Currency ("Make-pretend MATRIX money!") to make it big in life (when that fails miserably and Randal nearly dies, he swears off Jesus and becomes a born again Satanist).  Of course, Smith finds some level of catharsis in exploring Randal's window-maker heart attack, which the director also suffered from in real life, serving as obvious inspiration here.  It's both sad and hilarious to witness Randal taken down multiple pegs by this medical emergency, and even during it he still has a penchant for pop culture-laced platitudes, including a sweet CONAN THE BARBARIAN reference ("Are you there Crom?" he pitifully asks while laid up in a hospital bed).  One of the modest pleasures of CLERKS III is that Smith gives Anderson's Randal more of a character arc this go-around.  When he decides to make a movie about his clerks life and then spends the rest of the film shooting this dream project it doesn't get anymore meta than that for Smith, who also worked at the convenience store while making  the original CLERKS.  Dante experiences some inadequacy issues along the way when it comes to wondering how he'll fit into his BFF's screenplay, which leads to the hysterical STAR WARS themed riff "I've not even the Lobot here!"   Probably the funniest moment in CLERKS III is an extended audition sequence as we see Randal interview prospective actors.  Former Smith alumni Ben Affleck shows up and attempts to wow the onlookers while trying to find pathos in the line reading "I'm not even supposed to be here today!" Damn good stuff.

As amusing as all of this sounds (and some of it is indeed side-splitting), one of the major problems with CLERKS III is the making of the movie within the movie angle that's presented.  Smith's screenplay becomes less creatively potent the longer the film progresses and becomes more of a looking-back legacy sequel than one that finds something new to do with these characters.  Fans of the CLERKS films will get a kick out of these two schlubs trying to make a movie with the most minuscule of resources, which mirrors Smith's own struggles with making his CLERKS in the first place.  It's hard not to get a little warm hearted during these sections of this threequel, but too much of CLERKS III seems to be laboriously slavish to callbacks, old scenes, old setups, old confrontations, and old and familiar faces returning once again.  There is a copy and paste feel to the proceedings here that I rarely felt in CLERKS II, and the recycling of series elements and Smith dabbling in looking back at his own career and using it for story elements here seems more than a bit self-serving and a tad shameless.  Not complimenting things either is that Smith has also made his most visually uninspired of the CLERKS films here (that's not to say that they previous entries were bravura stylistic pieces, but the director's slipshod and flat footed camera shots and editing here leave a lot to be desired and almost make the grainy and cheaper aesthetic of the 1994 franchise introductory installment look paradoxically better by comparison...and at least the last sequel had a terrifically staged musical number).  Hearty and consistent laughs - despite some well earned ones - seem few and far between this go-around as well.  Anderson and O'Halloran remain an inspired foul mouthed pair that have definitely matured into their roles in many ways, but the laugh-out-loud quotient of their previous conversations and arguments are simply not as pronounced here. 

Perhaps the biggest issue with CLERKS III is that this film really, really wants to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to its subject matter and tone.  This is a movie that's about a man that nearly dies of a massive heart attack and then has a major crisis of conscience and experiences a mid-life shock to the system (not to mention that another man has to process the tragic death of his wife from years past) and it wants to balance the solemnity of that with the typical wacky and ultra raunchy shenanigans that populates the CLERKS universe.  Smith absolutely has every right to make a film about life threatening experiences (seeing as he lived through one), but he rarely finds a way to make the drama of that event tie organically into the unrelenting silliness of this world.  And he also wants to tie all of this with a neat bow as a love letter to his own indie filmmaking roots.  There's almost too much going on in CLERKS III and it rarely finds the right register to operate in.  During my screening I felt that a better movie about Smith's heart attack nightmare could be made outside of the CLERKS movie world.  When his sequel wants to attain some level of memorable dramatic effectiveness it falls flat when the next scene incongruently transitions to cornball hijinks.  Everything rushes and builds to a final act that comes off as one big manipulative cheat that I'm sure even long-standing CLERKS fans will have a hard time buying. 

I think that, deep down, CLERKS III has things that it wants to say with these approaching fifty characters and how uneasy thoughts about their mortality is starting to creep up on them in ways never before explored in this series.  CLERKS I was about slackers.  CLERKS II was about slackers that haven't fully grown up and were stuck in a state of arrested development that eventually transcended into adult levels of responsibilities.  CLERKS III is about maturing men struggling with said adult responsibilities that now have to deal with the nagging prospect of near-death and death.  Again, the whole overriding arc here seems interesting enough, and Smith has an established past track record of making good pictures (well, maybe in the distant past of the 90s) and being a perceptive and funny screenwriter to make this return to the Quick Stop a memorable one.  Unfortunately, there's just too much dissonance with his narrative aims and overall execution here.  I enjoyed being in the company of Dante, Randal, Jay and Silent Bob again.  I grew up and became an adult alongside these rascals.  There's an undeniable cinematic comfort food element at play in CLERKS III, but fan servicing can only take this sequel so far, leading to a final product that feels like it truly has to close its franchise doors for good moving forward. 

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