Clerks (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

1994 has boasted a number of innovative and humorous films: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Eat Drink Man Woman, Ciao Professore!, The Hudsucker Proxy, My Life's in Turnaround,Fear of a Black Hat, The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Spanking the Monkey. Funnier than all these, and surely the current front-runner for comedy of the year, is Kevin Smith's Clerks, the hilariously R-rated debut about life behind the counter at a Central Jersey convenience store.

Smith, who filmed his low-budget black-and-white feature at the Quick Stop shop where he worked, set out to make a film with "no meaning whatsoever -- just a lot of [four-letter word] jokes." Despite his original intention, however, the director slipped, and a theme about the ennui of today's youth wormed its way in, giving Clerks a slight dramatic underpinning to its often-uproarious vignettes.

The comedy is raw and ribald, varying from somewhat off-color to truly tasteless. Nothing, no matter how outrageous, is beyond Smith, and his willingness to flaunt cinematic taboos is one of the reasons why Clerks is such a unqualified success. Where else can you find an explicit discussion of certain sexual practices immediately preceding an argument over a unique interpretation of the ending of Return of the Jedi?

The dialogue of Clerks has accurately captured the street language common in the part of the country where the movie was filmed. There are a few lines that come across as scripted, but this is often the result of the manner in which they're delivered (the actors are good, but not seasoned). As far as the level of profanity is concerned, anyone spending time on a Monmouth County (New Jersey) street won't be shocked, but those who are offended by such language should beware. But for a successful appeal to the MPAA, the movie would have been released with an NC-17 rating. The obscenity count tops that of Pulp Fiction -- not something easy to do, especially considering that Clerks is an hour shorter.

By Smith's own admission, there isn't much of a plot -- just a loose framework to hold together a series of scenes featuring odd personalities in bizarre situations. The main characters are Dante (Brian O'Halloran), a Quick Stop clerk who does his best to cater to his customers, and Randal (Jeff Anderson), the man behind the counter at a local video store who spends his time insulting and offending every potential renter. Also wandering in and out of the story are a local drug-dealer, Jay (Jason Mewes), and his sidekick, Silent Bob (Kevin Smith), as well as Dante's current girlfriend, Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti), and his ex, Caitlin (Lisa Spoonhauer).

Given more money, the director would have preferred a 35 mm color shoot rather than a blowup of a 16 mm black-and-white print, but the grainy, occasionally-"homemade" quality of the movie lends Clerks a pseudo-documentary look that a more polished product would not have achieved. It's hard to imagine the picture working as effectively with a different style -- some of the strange goings-on might then seem staged rather than natural.

It's rare for a motion picture to maintain the level of irreverence and humor of Clerks for its full running length. In his first outing behind the camera, Kevin Smith has given his audience the kind of film at which veteran film makers often fail. As the final credits roll with the promise that "Jay and Silent Bob will return in Dogma", we can be thankful that this isn't the last we'll see of Smith or his cast of offbeat characters.

Clerks (United States, 1994)

Director: Kevin Smith
Cast: Brian O'Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Marilyn Ghigliotti, Lisa Spoonhauer, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith
Screenplay: Kevin Smith
Cinematography: David Klein
Music: Scott Angley
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 1994-10-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1