Director: Kevin Smith
The 1990s were an important decade in independent filmmaking. Movies like Boys Don't Cry, Natural Born Killers, The Big Lebowski, and the work of Quentin Tarantino brought many little-known actors and directors into the spotlight. Such was the case with Clerks, a low-budget black and white movie from 1994. Directed by first-time filmmaker Kevin Smith, the movie following a day in the life of two convenience store clerks became a cult classic among Gen-Xers and brought much recognition to its director. Smith and went on to direct four more entries into the fictional universe dubbed "the View Askewniverse" (named for View Askew, Smith's production company), each film each gaining a devoted following among his fans. But when Smith decided to venture outside the View Askewniverse in 2004 with Jersey Girl, it wasn't met with the same reaction as his prior work. In fact, it was crapped on by damn near everybody. Perhaps due to the movie-going public's backlash against movies featuring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez in the wake of the Gigli disaster, Jersey Girl barely broke even, was nominated for three Razzie Awards, and was even subjected to playful derision from Smith himself. He returned to what brought him to the dance two years later, writing and directing the first true sequel in the View Askewniverse, Clerks II. And personally, I think it may be some of Smith's best work.
Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) are still living a minimum wage existence as the clerks of the Quick Stop and RST Video. But when their places of business accidentally burn down, you'd think that would be the spark that would get them moving on to bigger and better things. Turns out that they merely went from ten years of convenience store hell to fast food hell when they get jobs at the local Mooby's restaurant.
A year passes, and Dante is preparing for his final day of work at Mooby's. The next morning, he's packing up and leaving New Jersey for Florida, where he plans on wedding his white-collar fiancé Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach). It's unimportant to Dante that his heart truly belongs to his boss, Becky (Rosario Dawson); she claims to not believe in romantic love, nor can she promise a way out of Dante's rut like Emma can.
Randal is devastated by the prospect of losing his best friend for good, but hides it under his sarcastic personality while he humorously torments his dorky teenage coworker Elias (Trevor Fehrman). And it's just another day for newly-sober Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith), who are only concerned with standing outside and selling drugs.
If Clerks tells the story of slackers at that awkward stage between youth and adulthood, then Clerks II tells the story of slackers that have reached adulthood and aren't sure what to do with their lives. By bringing the View Askewniverse full circle, Kevin Smith shows that he has matured as a filmmaker while staying true to what brought him fame in the first place. Yes, Clerks II is a raunchy affair that will primarily appeal to Smith's devoted fanbase, but that doesn't stop it from being intelligent, fun, and even a little heartwarming.
Smith's maturation over the twelve years between his debut film and its sequel is especially evident in his direction. I'm not for sure if that was due to budgetary restrictions or his relative inexperience, but it seemed that in the original Clerks, Smith was content to just point the camera in one direction and let the action go down. But with Clerks II, we actually see the camera move around a few times. Smith with a little help from cinematographer Dave Klein still utilizes the "point and shoot" method for the most part, but he throws in a few crane shots and some handheld stuff. He also uses a simple yet effective move, rotating the camera around Dante and Randal during a particularly dramatic dialogue exchange. Things like that really work to enhance the overall feeling that Smith was trying to go for, and I think he did a great job.
The screenplay penned by Smith is also as wonderful as ever, in spite of a few flaws. We never really believe that Emma is ever a contender for Dante's heart, especially since Smith has chosen to write her as a ball-busting shrew that just doesn't seem to really love Dante for who he is. That sort of thing afflicts most movies with a "torn between two lovers" air, so I guess it should be expected out of Clerks II as well. But no matter, the script is still hilarious, with very few misses. While not as outright vulgar as Clerks, Smith makes this one just as raunchy and as fanboyish as well. From discussions regarding the difference between Helen Keller and Anne Frank, to debates over the value of a particular sexual act and whether or not the phrase "porch monkey" should be a racial slur, to a rant regarding the quality of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, Smith is in rare form. He even throws in a donkey show and a musical number too. The jokes may not fly for everybody, but those that get a laugh out of this sort of thing will enjoy what Smith brings to the table.
I spoke of Smith's evolution as a director, but it should be noted that his cast has evolved as well. As good as they might have been, it was still obvious that the cast of the original Clerks were amateurs, nobodies that could have randomly walked into the Quick Stop on any given day and landed a role in the movie. But with the passing of a dozen years, his returning major players have drastically improved. Brian O'Halloran is still kinda stiff, but he's still quite fun as a character that seems to be perpetually stuck behind the eight-ball of "The Man." And as he was in the original Clerks, Jeff Anderson is a total scene-stealer. As uncouth as Randal may be, Anderson's performance makes him charming and amiable. And although the roles of Jay and Silent Bob are downplayed, Jason Mewes and Smith are hilarious as always. Their memorable moments are limited, but the presence of Smith's most popular characters are much welcomed.
The new cast members aren't too bad either. Jennifer Schwalbach, who one may recognize as either Mrs. Kevin Smith or pigtailed jewel thief Missy from Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, is entertaining as Emma. Like I said, we can tell from the start that her relationship with Dante isn't going to end well, but Schwalbach has fun in the role and it shows. Also having fun is Trevor Fehrman, who is incredibly amusing as Randal's nerdy and woefully sheltered sidekick Elias. The character isn't very deep, but Fehrman does provide the movie with some of the movie's best scenes ("Pillow Pants," anyone?). But something that even Smith will readily admit is that the best actor in the entire movie is Rosario Dawson. Adding another entry onto her already colorful résumé, Dawson is nothing short of wonderful. She plays the role with a passion, and does such an impressive job that she nearly makes everyone else in the cast look bad by comparison. Dante and Becky's relationship is one of the film's strongest points, and while O'Halloran is no slouch, Dawson really helps elevate it into something that we the viewer want to see more of.
I don't really know for certain if Clerks II is the absolute final chapter of the View Askewniverse. Smith said the same thing about Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back back in 2001, and look where we are now. Maybe when 2018 rolls around, we'll see Clerks III, where Smith can do a movie about slackers in their forties raising teenage slacker children. But as it stands now, Clerks II makes for a perfect finale for the View Askewniverse. I'm certainly not complaining if it did end here. And I'll gladly give the movie four stars and a hearty recommendation. Go check it out, and see if you can find my name in the MySpace credits at the end.
Final Rating: ****