In Kevin Smith’s new movie Clerk IIIDante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson), the slacker behind the counter who gave a profane, loquacious voice to Gen X’s obsessions and frustrations in the beloved comedy Clerks, are making a film themselves, based on their own life as a convenience store, with the help of local stoner clowns Jay and Silent Bob. This should not be confused with Smith’s film Jay and Silent Bob strike backwhere his fellow comedy duo travel to Hollywood to halt production on a movie based on their lives, or revisiting it years later Jay and Silent Bob rebootwhere the same duo head to Hollywood again to halt production on a reboot also based on their lives, or his unrelated 2008 project Zack and Miri make a porn, where an amateur porn shoot (with a cast including Jeff Anderson) becomes a proxy to chronicle Smith’s experiences making a low-budget film. But Clerk III isn’t just the most recent film in which Smith re-examines his DIY mythology; it is also the most maudlin, returning with Dante and Randal and finding a real tragedy beyond the expected regrets of the Middle Ages.
In this way, both Clerks the sequels bring Dante and Randal closer to ground level, rewriting the rules of Smith’s original “Jersey Trilogy.” It was the informal name of the budgetless Clerkslarge studio Mallrats and back to basics Chasing Amy before it became clear that it wouldn’t just be three and done for Smith and his Jersey characters. Soon the trilogy was down to five, with the ambitious religious comedy-fantasy Dogma and the self-reflexive Jay and Silent Bob strike backintended to close the saga. Clerk II reopened the book in 2006, and the movies Smith has made since then (whether Jersey-related or not) have been, on average, sloppier and/or more forgiving. Even its exit strategies – touring shows or single-show Fathom events, both of which are in effect for Clerk III — are tributes to the cult of his personality.
It’s easy to read Smith’s increasingly repetitive and hermetic universe as a domed homage to oneself – so easy, in fact, that it’s a little surprising that King of Comfort Smith himself- even, who seems more fond than ever of easy laughs, does not make a bigger joke in Clerk III. Then again, there’s probably another Jay and Silent Bob comedy down the line for those purposes. By comparing, Clerk III is serious business, not least because its comedic styles are largely and daunting. Although it features countless references and callbacks to the 1994 original, Clerk III finds Smith losing more than a step on his own brand of comedic banter. At first, when Randal has a heart attack in the QuickStop store he and Dante own together, he is rushed to the hospital, where Anderson is forced to huff and puff through a gag the size of a dick, facing a wacky doctor played by Amy Sedaris. ; Meanwhile, Elias (Trevor Fehrman), the young clerk introduced into Clerk II, undergoes a conversion from Christianity to Satanism out of guilt, a gag that lasts for the remainder of the film. The film’s insistence that Elias is a crucial part of QuickStop lore is one of the many ways Clerk III looks like a legacy sequel 16 years later Clerk II more than a sequel to the original Clerks.
In this long progression through long gaps of redefinition, Clerk III also looks like – and here’s the weird twist – by Richard Linklater Before midnightretroactively turning the entire trilogy into Smith’s response to Linklater Before series. The Linklater movie that became part of Smith’s personal mythology, of course, is Lazy, a free-flowing anthology of characters and monologues that convinced Smith that he, too, could make movies. “I never imagined myself…being a storyteller, much less a filmmaker. But he held up a mirror to a world I knew, even if it was a world apart. Richard Linklater made it possible,” he said. told PBS in 2017. Lazythe influence of Clerks is clear, but Linklater before sunrisea walk and talk romance that debuted just as Clerks was finishing its art and trial run, is arguably even more sympathetic to Smith’s talkative style. Linklater revisited his not-quite couple Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Deply) for 2004 before sunsetjust a few years ago Clerk II reverted to Dante and Randal (now fast food workers and, by some strange coincidence, released the same year as Linklater’s fast food nation). Before midnight completed the trilogy in 2013, with the couple now married — and possibly on the rocks. Clerk III treats in equally sobering terms: failing health, lingering grief, disappointments in life.
Characteristically, it is Randal who hatches the impulsive, post-hospitalization plan to write and direct his own magnum opus about this convenience store life, while Dante haunts and haws, just as he did to play the rooftop hockey in the first Clerks (a hobby that has been codified into routine now that he and Randal own the business). They are a couple with a recognizable and, to a certain extent, unchanging dynamic, just like Jesse and Celine. Despite Smith’s island delight in taking encores with his Jersey pals, even more drawn to the idea of Randal doing his Clerks (and the sheer lack of off-screen Clerks adventures from which Randal draws inspiration for his screenplay), he is also ready to serve a little discomfort. In particular, the way he undoes the happy ending that seemed within Dante’s reach at the end of Clerk II is so invigorating it borders on sour.
That’s part of why I can’t outright dismiss Clerk IIIeven though it didn’t make me laugh much, even though the treatment of Rosario Dawson’s character from Clerk II irritated me, even though Smith sometimes seems to deteriorate as a director as he gains more experience. (For all its static, point-and-shoot utility, there’s nothing in Clerks as crudely put together as the jarring and unnecessary camera angle switches that dot some of the dialogue scenes here.) between his jokes and his recitations of nerdbro scripture (“I’m not even supposed to be here today” , star wars references, “37!” and so on), Smith can’t help but search for a bigger meaning. Like Linklater, he seems fascinated by the passage of time — even if that means above all reflecting on his the passage of time – and the way it moves inexorably forward, in defiance of the happy endings movies so often sell us.
To be clear, Smith is clearly not Richard Linklater, who supplements his eye for everyday humanity with curiosity, versatility and a prolific filmmaking (not podcasts, which seems to be Smith’s true calling these days). Still, Smith seems to want the best for his characters, which makes it all the more surprising when he doesn’t actually deliver it, either in terms of plot or any memorable new dialogue that may accompany the original. As his most compelling, Clerk III is haunted by the question of what would have happened to Smith had he not been the recipient of lottery luck (and, yes, real talent).
The film’s response isn’t particularly satisfying; it’s perhaps not particularly insightful either, and there’s an oddly tearful self-satisfaction in Smith introducing it to his loyal audience, obviously assuming some of them will be in tears by the end. However, at its base, Clerk III is far from a betrayal of the original Clerks: It is a recognition that much of life is potential purgatory that we must find a way out of. It’s clear that Smith himself feels like he’s escaped — though he may have created a whole new artistic limbo for his work in the process.
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