Clerks II (2006) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
A dozen cold New Jersey winters have passed since Clerks was released as a low-budget phenomenon in 1994, and Clerks II checks in to see how that time has affected the lives of the original characters. Still clerkin' after all these years, Randal and Dante are now holding down McJobs because Randal negligently burned down their c-store a year ago. Randal is still the same old Randal in every way, barely having changed at all through the years. Dante, on the other hand, seems to have lucked into a way out of the minimum wage lifestyle. He has a supportive fiancée whose prosperous father plans to endow the couple with a new house and a business of their own in Florida. Will Dante really leave New Jersey and his best buddy to enter the comfortable routine of a bourgeois life with a wife who wants to tame him?
I took the young members of my family to the advance showing of Clerks 2 in Austin. That includes my son, my daughter, and my niece. They range in age from 15-22. That may gave some of you an indication that I totally lack parenting skills, insofar as I exposed impressionable youngsters to such raunchy material, but ... well ... setting aside my own personal failings for a second, the point of this paragraph is supposed to be that they all loved it, and it is the kind of anarchic film that the youth of every recent generation probably have embraced.
In other words, Kevin Smith has delivered a film that will please his target audience, which consists of his existing fans and the next generation of rebellious youth who comprise his future fans. That is quite an accomplishment considering his age and current station in life. When Smith wrote Clerks some dozen years before, it was a film that reeked of sincerity. It reeked in other ways as well, but what made the whole thing really work, and eventually to become a cult classic, was that it was true. It captured with unflinching accuracy the angst of high school graduates trapped in go-nowhere lives. The dialogue included plenty of geekspeak, raunchy and unbridled sex talk, and various other politically incorrect notions of all kinds. It was exactly how those characters, reasonably intelligent people in that generation and in those situations, really talked when unfettered and in their trusted circle, as opposed to a sterile Hollywood notion of what their discussions ought to be like.
Kevin knew that life. He lived that life. He was a bright, funny, thoughtful, politically incorrect guy who had worked as a clerk.
The big question with Clerks II centers around Smith's ability to stay in touch. Unlike the situation in Clerks, when his characters' lives and his life were similar, they have now gone in separate directions. The key characters, Dante and Randal, are doing the same things at 33 that they were doing at 21, except they are all too aware that they have now worked temporary jobs for more than a decade. Jay and Silent Bob have been through addiction and rehab, and are still leaning against walls selling drugs. Elias, the new 19-year-old kid in the group, represents the next generation of clueless slackers. Smith, on the other hand, is now a savvy multi-millionaire director with a sexy actress wife and a collection of Hollywood pals. When he was 21 he knew the very guys he was writing about. Presumably he doesn't know many people like Elias today, or even like Dante and Randal as they are now (although he certainly knows somebody like Jay, because his friend Jason Mewes has essentially been writing the Jay part with his own life). Smith can no longer write the characters' lines through the filter of his own passion.
Could he stay sufficiently in tune with his characters to retain the edge of the original Clerks?
Kevin's answer to that question hinges on his ability to understand Dante and Randal metaphorically. Just as Dante is facing society's pressure to become a grown-up by the standard definition, Smith is facing the expectations of critics who expect him to mature as a filmmaker. Dante basically decides to live life by his own values and to do the things he wants to do, so returns to the Quick Stop. His return to the Quick Stop is a symbolic representation of Smith's return to Clerks. Both the character and his creator are trying to do the things in life that they like best, and that they do best.
My own answer to that question has to be a wishy-washy "I don't know." I don't know jack straws about the discussions held by 33-year-old slackers, or whether they regret and/or justify the abandonment of their dreams. I do think that Kevin can no longer relate to many or most of the fundamental concerns of these characters. 21-year-old clerks in minimum wage jobs have the advantage of youthful good health and a future which is still malleable and filled with promise, because they feel that they're just treading water temporarily until they decide how to move on. Their 33-year-old equivalents have a host of concerns that Kevin simply can't relate to, and those concerns encompass the most fundamental elements of life. First of all, Smith knew what the Quick Stop was like, but he just doesn't get the fast food business. Unlike "mom 'n pop" c-stores, comic book stores, and video outlets, there is very little time for screwing around in fast-feeders, which generally work on a pressured pace akin to Lucille Ball's famous conveyor belt. Then there is the cumulative effect of 12 years without medical insurance. Dante and Randal have probably gone the last dozen years without proper dental care. They can't afford orthodontics, so their teeth are undoubtedly crooked. They probably can't afford any dental work except for dire emergencies, so their teeth are starting to hurt, perhaps to rot, thus befouling their breath. Their parents are growing toward the age when they need more and more care, but minimum wage workers have neither the time nor the resources to provide any assistance. OK, I'm getting morbid, so I'll drop it, but the point is that a carefree life is possible for a minimum wage laborer who is 21 and sponging off his parents, but life is hard for a 33-year-old person living on a single minimum wage income and trying to make ends meet in this cold world. Instead of the candor of Clerks, there is more than one whiff of Hollywood bullshit in the air surrounding Clerks 2. How far does the scent carry? Well, at one point Jay and Silent Bob and the others are joined by an entire Broadway-style chorus line, all of them dancing along to a bubblegum hit in the Mooby's parking lot. I liked the infectious energy of that scene very much, and my own shoulders were probably swaying, but ... well ... while it may not be fair to say that the gritty dialogue of Clerks has entirely given way to typical Hollywood claptrap in Clerks 2, it might be reasonable to contend that the fast-feeder's parking lot has a distinct odor that cannot be explained by the grease trap. While the first avatar of Clerks came directly from the heart and personal experience, this one involves a lot of imagination. That may be a good thing, or it may drag it far away from the truth about the characters. Probably a bit of both.
Having said that, however, I have to admit that I was engaged "in the moment" by the characters and situations. Even if Kevin really doesn't understand anything about his characters except their vague sense of thirty-something anomie, they still seem vivid, and he still feels for them. The good news is that Kevin has given some thought to the small details of his character development. Randal, for example, can't quite remember which cultural icons were which from the books in his required high school reading, and thinks that Anne Frank is Helen Keller. That rings true within the Randal character. To cite another example, I presume Kevin knows how to pronounce "bestial," but none of his characters do, and that is exactly as it should be, because none of these guys would be punctilious scholars. Those details establish the fact that even though Kevin no longer feels the passion of the clerks, he has lost neither compassion for them nor interest in them. I think that is all you can reasonably expect until an impoverished 30-something comic book geek comes along and maxes out his own credit cards to make a film about himself and his peers.
In the meantime, it's fair to say that this film will be measured by other elements besides the sincerity of the portrayals and the story arc of the characters. It is, after all, a comedy, and its primary evaluative criterion must therefore be laughter. There was a lot of that in Austin. You have to understand that the audience in Austin consisted of Smith fans who had ponied up at least thirty bucks apiece to participate in an agape, so one cannot really measure the film fairly by their reaction, but I can certainly report that they did love it. In fact, they loved the jokes so goddamned much that they kept laughing through subsequent funny dialogue. It made me squirm in my seat a couple of times to hear the audience laughing at material that clearly did not work, like a very lame attempt to diss Hayden Christensen simply by having a guy do a robotic delivery of "Name: Manniquin Skywalker. Ruining series with shitty acting." Wow. The exact same joke repeated by every sixth grader at recess time - and always good for a hearty laugh among the twelve year olds, even when repeated the thirtieth time of the week! If the audience will laugh at that, they'd probably laugh at Roberto Benigni's Pinocchio if Kevin put his name on it as a producer.
Besides, Hayden Christensen seems like a young Brando compared to some of the actors in Clerks 2. In fact he seems like Olivier compared to the guy who was making fun of him!
But most of the humor does work, and Smith seems to deserve a tip of the hat for continually trying to refine his movie and to push it beyond a series of in-jokes for his loyal fans. It doesn't hurt to know the background of the View Askewniverse - the fictional world of Kevin Smith films, Kevin's equivalent of Gotham City - but the film is a self-contained comedy which can be just as funny to those unfamiliar with Smith's previous movies. My family members joined the rest of the audience in giving the film a resounding "whoo" and all thumbs pointed heavenward, despite the fact that they come from radically different levels of familiarity with the View Askewniverse. My 22-year-old son is a big movie buff and has seen all of Kevin's films except Jersey Girl, and he thought Clerks II to be high on the Kevin Scale. My 20-year-old daughter likes movies, and knows who Jay and Silent Bob are, but is not really very familiar with Kevin's films, and certainly could not have been called a fan before the screening. Nonetheless, she was whooping and hooting along with the die-hard Kevin addicts. My more conservative 15-year-old niece had absolutely no idea who Kevin was, but she also loved the film, although she seemed to be shocked a few times by the outrageous sexually-oriented material, especially of the interspecies variety. In other words, there's some seriously raunchy shit in this flick. Those of you with more evolved parenting skills than my own may want to take note of that. If I had to do it all over again, I might not invite the youngster, even though she had a great time.
As for me, well, I loved the humor as well, for two primary reasons:
It all boils down to this. I like the underlying touchy-feely structure of the film and find the characters sympathetic and reasonably genuine, at least within the limited evaluative capacity of a 57-year-old former corporate president trying to measure how sincerely young slackers are pictured. I also laughed a lot. The audience of Kevin fans was totally pleased with the experience. The youngsters in my own family had a great time, and all three found the film far better than they expected.
So I guess our thumb count, as Jay might put it, is all way the fuck up.
I deliberately restricted the notes above to my thoughts about the movie itself. Let me add something about the entire experience, because Kevin was there for Q&A after the screening. I'll make it short and to the point: you just can't go wrong by attending a live presentation by Kevin Smith. He has a great rapport with the audience, is quick on his feet, is very funny, improvises well, is totally candid, and gives far more of his time than anyone could reasonably expect from a guy with a busy schedule. He went on and on and on like an Energizer Walrus, even though he had commitments the next day in a different city. That is brilliant marketing on his part, of course, but he also seems to enjoy the experience immensely. One suspects that he loves his fans as much as they love him, which is very much indeed.
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