Kevin Smith is a deceptively good filmmaker. Often criticized for a filmic paralysis that has seen his style advance very little from the amateurish and unpolished production of the original Clerks, he has maintained a very plain and unaffected style of storytelling that serves him and us very well. In Clerks II, the plainness of his production lends the film an effortlessness and reality that compounds the humor of Smith’s script and underscores the banality of the world he captures. The film has a relaxed pitch-perfect tone that gently draws you in before bitch-slapping you in the face with some of the most acerbically constructed, sporadically gut-busting, brilliant, base, and repulsive splotches of hilarity cinema has produced and probably wouldn’t dare repeat.
The story is suitably minimalist. Former mini-mall clerks Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) now work at Mooby’s fast food restaurant. Randal spends his days badgering the customers and perpetual employee of the month Elias (Trevor Fehrman), an uber-Christian uber-nerd with a penchant for Peter Jackson. Dante has slightly more to do. Just as he is about to make the move to Florida with fiancé Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach) and begin a life he has been threatening to live for twelve years, he finds himself vacillating between his affections for Emma and his Mooby’s manager Becky (Rosario Dawson). The story’s tensions are these: Will Dante choose the woman he really loves? Will Randal realize his life is slipping away? Will Smith really show cinemagoers the special talents of Kinky Kelly? Of course, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) come along for the ride.
Clerks II is, aside from its charm and tone, a very funny movie. The conceit of an under patronized fast food hellhole allows Smith’s characters time and space to simply riff on anything and everything they like. Entrenched in the culture of internet blogging and talkback, Smith has crafted some fine and ultra-current dialogue for these diatribes. A heated conversation between Randal, Elias, and a customer, in which the battle between Star Wars and Jackson’s Rings trilogy is contested, seems lifted from the pages of any of a countless number of film forums but laced with Smith’s trademark zing. Randal, half huffy footballer and half super geek, is particularly hilarious at tearing shreds off Jackson’s films. By the time he has concluded with ‘Even the trees walk in those movies!’ I was gasping for breath. Other mirthful moments involve the buggery of donkeys, the fundamentals of ‘ass-to-mouth,’ and Jay’s wonderfully oddball take on Silence of the Lambs‘ penis-tucking Buffalo Bill.
Clerks II is elevated by an unsentimental heart always pulsing just beneath the surface of its irreverent movements. Smith’s plain style captures the banality of his characters’ lives — the dirty floors, the rusting signs, the human imperfections — and his dialogue turns away occasionally from obsessions with the body to matters of the soul. The dilemma Dante faces is very real and treated with delicate pathos in the script, and O’Halloran is effective as the conflicted clerk. At first I found him unsatisfactory as a romantic lead, his Ricky Gervais appearance and too-gentle demeanor not quite adding up to what I suspect Ms. Dawson might look for in a man. However, as the film progresses this becomes entirely the point. He is the everyman with the same kind of hidden heart as Smith’s film. Anderson as Randal, the crook to O’Halloran’s straight man, gives another performance that, whilst showy, is always believable.
Newcomers Dawson and Fehrman fit well into Kevin Smith’s New Jersey universe. Dawson is the precise piece of radiance required to light up the dull landscape and Fehrman, while perhaps the least believable character, certainly attacks the stereotype he plays with gusto. Clerks II is a fine balance between vulgarity and humanity that skimps on neither. Smith and his team should revel broadly at creating this appealing vignette of Jersey life and we can revel in watching it.
Now that’s a happy meal.