Clerks II 

(R) 3 stars

In 1994, Kevin Smith made a name for himself in the world of independent film with Clerks, a super-low-budget black and white offering about the people that worked at, and hung around, a New Jersey convenience store. The movie was technically crude, the presentation was often stagy and some of the acting was dicey, but it didn’t matter because Clerks was all about the exchanges between the characters. A large segment of the audience listened to the surly, funny, fascinating conversations, laden with pop culture references, and heard a heightened version of the kind of discussions they had with their friends. With Clerks, Kevin Smith presented his audience with a funhouse mirror reflection of their own rhythms, humor, fears and coping mechanisms.

And now, after Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Jersey Girl, Smith returns to the Quick Stop mini-market for Clerks II. So, can you go home again? The answer appears to be a resounding “yes, sort of, but the results won’t be pretty.” But then again, it wasn’t pretty in the first place.

Clerks II is awkward and wildly uneven, lurching back and forth between snappy fan-boy exchanges and sloppy but sweet sentiment, with a leaden set piece in the third act that threatens to sink the movie. But it doesn’t, because despite all the bullshit, Smith’s voice is still there.

Clerks II is not as good as Clerks. In the original film it felt like Smith captured something special. The new film feels like Smith struggled long and hard to manufacture that same elusive something. Still, by hook or crook, he got it and I can’t imagine many fans of Clerks who won’t find some pleasure in Clerks II.

After a black and white prologue showing the Quick Stop shut down due to a fire, the film switches to color as we join Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) at their new jobs at Mooby’s, a fast food joint with a bovine theme. Dante, the laid-back defeatist, and Randal, the angry, motor-mouth defeatist, flip burgers alongside a sweet-natured kid named Elias Grover (Trevor Fehrman). Randal, to no surprise, tears into the boy like a ravenous Great Dane on an unattended buffet, but Elias turns out to be a tenacious little twerp.

One of the best parts of the movie is a heated debate between the two of them on the merits of Star Wars vs. Lord of the Rings, leading to Randal summing up the Rings trilogy in one quite funny sentence that I won’t ruin by quoting here. The low point of the film, incidentally, is a “donkey act” towards the end of the movie that’s supposed, I think, to be shocking and hilarious. It isn’t either. The whole subject was much more effectively addressed as a throwaway gag in Bachelor Party. Here, the joke is painfully belabored.

Back to the story. Life is about to change again for the Quick Stop refugees. Dante is engaged to Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach Smith, Smith’s wife), a woman with a tight smile and control issues, and he will soon be moving to Florida with her to start a proper adult life. But wait a minute, Dante seems happier and much more comfortable with Becky Scott (Rosario Dawson), his manager at Mooby’s, and she is clearly smitten with him. You can figure where all of this will go, but hey, you don’t watch Kevin Smith movies for the plots.

Before proceeding any farther, let me take a moment to say that Rosario Dawson is absolutely delightful, aiding the film immeasurably with her bright presence and solid acting. The rest of the cast, which includes beloved dopers Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith), gets the job done.

Clerks II is at its best when the characters are bantering. The emotional parts of the film are cumbersome, but effective. Despite the Dante/Emma/Becky romantic triangle, the real love story here is the friendship between Dante and Randal, addressed directly with a heartfelt speech late in the film by Randal that manages to be cheesy and touching at the same time.
I wish Kevin Smith had worked on his script a bit more, with an eye towards smoothing out those big swings between smart-ass chatter and heart-tugging emotion. I also wish that there were more customers at Mooby’s and that the customers reacted more realistically to the behaviors of the clerks. But he didn’t and there aren’t and they don’t and I still had a pretty good time. So there you go.

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