Clerks II (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's interesting to note that, as Kevin Smith has changed and matured as a filmmaker, he has elected to close the circle and look back from a perspective of a dozen years at the movie that put him on the indie map, Clerks. Clerks II is a direct sequel to that movie, albeit one that transpires a decade later - the first such movie Smith has done (although many of his films have featured cameos by characters from other pictures). It feels both the same as and different from its predecessor: the same, in that the script is constructed around a truckload of nearly X-rated gags, and different, in that Smith is peddling a message.

Clerks II may have a heart, but it gains it by jettisoning a portion of its funny bone. Don't misunderstand - this is a funny movie. It delivers plenty of laughs, but it isn't in the same league as Clerks. I left that movie holding my stomach from laughing so hard. With this one, I was smiling, but my diaphragm had not been given a workout. And Smith has something to say this time around. (I remember him making this comment about Clerks at a personal appearance: "There's no message, at least not one I consciously put in there. It's just a bunch of dirty jokes.") With a theme that may be as much a defense of his gentler style of movie-making (evident in Jersey Girl), he notes that aging changes people. The aimlessness of youth is replaced by a desire to make one's mark on the world. There's also the friendship angle: that friendships - true friendships - can outlast everything.

As Clerks II opens, the Quick Stop is burning to the ground, bringing to a close an era for long-time convenience store clerk, Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran), and his best buddy, video store clerk, Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson). No matter - both of them find other employment, this time as burger flippers at the fast food joint Mooby's. A year later, Dante is about to leave New Jersey for good, heading off to Florida where he intends to wed his fiancé, Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach). It doesn't matter that his real love is his boss, Becky (Rosario Dawson), since she doesn't have Emma's money or connections and she doesn't believe in romantic love. Randal is devastated by his friend's departure, but he tries not to show it. And fundamentalist Christian/Lord of the Rings fanatic co-worker Elias (Trevor Fehrman), who idolizes Dante, is equally distressed. Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) don't care one way or another - they just do what they always do: hang around outside and deal dope.

Clerks II contains plenty of pop references - The Lord of the Rings vs. Star Wars, Transformers, racial slurs - as well as countless jokes, 95% of which would be enough on their own to earn the film its R rating. The volume is down from Clerks, as is the ratio of hits to misses. This is indicative of how difficult it is for any director to mine the same territory twice. In fact, it's remarkable that Smith has developed something with as much wit as Clerks II exhibits. Despite not achieving the level of the original (which arrived as a breath of fresh air blowing through stuffy art houses), this is the most amusing comedy to arrive in months.

The acting is predictably mediocre, with one exception. Smith is committed to bringing back the original cast, including Brian O'Halloran, Jeff Anderson, and a rehabbed Jason Mewes. It's no surprise that these guys have essentially played these parts (and no others) over the course of the last 12 years. They were amateurs when Smith recruited them for Clerks, and their thespian skills have not been honed in the intervening years. O'Halloran's forced, rushed delivery of certain lines robs them of whatever power Smith invested them with during his writing. Jennifer Schwalbach, Smith's wife, plays bitchy Emma, a two-dimensional caricature shrew. The aforementioned exception is Rosario Dawson, who imbues Becky with passion and humanity. Dawson is so much better than anyone else in the cast that her presence in the film accentuates their deficiencies. Had someone less accomplished gotten the role, perhaps O'Halloran's stiffness wouldn't have been as obvious.

Clerks II has its share of serious scenes and, while not all work on an individual level, the aggregate is effective in making the movie more than a pointless exercise in scatological jokes and bestiality gags. (Try as he might, Smith fails to out-gross Tom Green from Freddy Got Fingered.) Also, despite O'Halloran's limitations as an actor, the relationship between Dante and Becky is effective. In fact, it's one of the two cornerstones of Clerks II (the other being the Dante/Randal friendship).

It's hard to say whether this is the last visit to the View Askew New Jersey Universe. (Smith makes sure we know where the film is set - hardly a scene goes by without a verbal or visual reference to the state.) At one time, he vowed to retire this group of characters after the release of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, but that didn't happen. Clerks II is a marked improvement over Jersey Girl, which may be an indication that Smith's strength lies with these people. The question is whether there's anywhere else to take them, or whether there needs to be.

Clerks II (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2006-07-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1