It's hard to believe, but it's been a dozen years since the $27,000-budgeted black-and-white comedy "Clerks" took the indie world by storm and claimed a ravenous cult following in the intervening years. It also made a household name out of Kevin Smith, a filmmaker with a talent for snappy dialogue over technical craft. His loyal fanbase won't be disappointed by the eagerly awaited (at least in some circles) "Clerks 2," a fond return to the characters of the View Askewniverse after Smith's brief, mostly unsuccessful pit-stop with 2004's "Jersey Girl
." "Clerks 2" isn't the equal of the original filmthat sort of lightning-in-a-bottle magic could probably never quite be repeated if the series were to continuebut what this new picture has that the old one didn't is a bittersweet urgency that comes with the passage of time. These characters aren't twenty-one anymore, and are facing a life of discontent if they don't soon figure out what is going to make them happy.
Picking up a decade after its raunchily written predecessor, the even-keeled Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) and unfocused Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) are still best friends working side by side at the Quick Stop convenience store and video rental shopuntil a freak fire destroys the building and their jobs. Switch forward a year, and Dante and Randal now work side by side at fast food restaurant Mooby's. Dante is about to move to Florida with his pushy fiancée Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach), and the twosome are facing their final work shift together. As the day presses on and the customers come and go, a desperate Randal tries to elect 19-year-old religion/sci-fi buff Elias (Trevor Fehrman) as his new go-to guy to hang out with and Dante questions whether Emma is the one for him. Complicating matters further for Dante are his burgeoning feelings for Mooby's boss Becky (Rosario Dawson), a smart and easygoing beauty whom he seems to click far better with than Emma, despite her claims that she doesn't believe in romantic love. Meanwhile, newly rehabbed drug-dealing slackers Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) take their spots outside against the building and reenact with disturbing, hysterical accuracy a famous scene from "The Silence of the Lambs."
The first "Clerks" portrayed with equal amounts of honesty and sarcasm the daily grind of working directly with the public. "Clerks 2" has a different working-class job settinga fast food jointbut not the same vivid eye for what it might be like to work there. The sparse clientele, partially made up of cameos by such celebs as Ben Affleck (2004's "Surviving Christmas
") and Jason Lee (2003's "Dreamcatcher
"), are around only when the plot demands it, and the employees are rarely seen actually working. Instead, they just appear to be hanging out at the restaurant all day, reminding one of the narrative of 1995's "Mallrats" as much as "Clerks." In the annals of food-serving comedies, 2005's better-developed and more authentic "Waiting
" one-ups "Clerks II" and beats it to the punch. In a two-minute turn that is far funnier and more memorable than her wasted larger part in 2006's "My Super Ex-Girlfriend
" (being released theatrically on the same day), Wanda Sykes tears it up as an impatient customer who overhears a racial epithet from Randal that she is none too pleased about.
The blissfully uncensored, frequently sexually graphic dialogue in "Clerks II" is easily the highlight over the predictable and uneven story. Conversations about the acceptability of performing ass-to-mouth, the battle between "Star Wars" and "The Lord of the Rings" for reigning trilogy of all time, and even the bestiality of a donkey zip by in a flurry of frank, no-holds-barred discussions as truthful and/or sick as they are perversely hilarious. Throw in a musical number to The Jackson 5's "ABC" and a curious scene referencing, of all things, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," and it becomes increasingly obvious that writer-director Kevin Smith wanted to follow the "everything-but-the-kitchen-sink" approach. It comes as a disappointment that the two female leads of the original "Clerks" aren't even mentioned, let alone show up, but one supposes Smith was under obligation to at least leave the kitchen sink behind.
As lifelong friends Dante and Randal, Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson seamlessly slide back into their title roles as if they never left them. Still, there are some legitimate changes. They're older and look it, they're a little rounder, and their faces show a weariness brought on by life's disappointments and the hands of time. The core drama within the filmthat Dante is finally about to part ways with Randal in a bid to settle down and changebrings an underlying gravitas
to much of the third act. Despite slowing down in the laughter department, this is the movie's most effective section, particularly in a well-placed montage scored to The Smashing Pumpkins' "1979" and a surprisingly touching final scene that takes these characters full-circle. Of the rest of the cast, Rosario Dawson (2005's "Rent
") is veritably bewitching as Becky, the sort of girl with the ability to just be "one of the guys," and Jason Mewes (2001's "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back
") is an uninhibited standout as usual as the goofy, obscene and somehow lovable Jay.
For non-prudish audience members, "Clerks II" delivers a silly, albeit crude, good time. It's hard to believe anyone could actually be offended by the material, since Kevin Smith's light, almost innocently sweet tone allows the viewer to not take any of the ruder, more explicit humor and dialogue too seriously. Still, it's not for everyone and the film is better off without those sticks in the mud. For the rest of us, the picture is subjectively uneven (the handling of Emma, who doesn't come off nearly as shrewish as intended, is a misstep) but objectively entertaining, its go-for-broke glee in compiling this group of actors together again for 97 minutes contagiously rubbing off on the watcher. For Smith, "Clerks II" may not be his best effortthat title still belongs to 1997's "Chasing Amy"but it is truthful and, most importantly, respectful to the very characters that jumpstarted his filmmaking career twelve years ago.