Supposedly Clerks II garnered an eight-minute standing ovation at Cannes. (Look at your watch for eight minutes and tell me you believe that.) However, it so offended critic Joel Siegel that he walked out of a screening — loudly proclaiming his departure, earning the even more vocal wrath of writer-director Kevin Smith. (Smith forgets this is the stuff of great myth. Consider the possibly apocryphal story of Robert Benchley’s vocal departure from the 1926 play, The Squall. Or the legendary Sadakichi Hartmann interrupting a Liszt recital, critiquing the performance with, “Is this absolutely necessary?” — followed by Hartmann’s ejection from the concert hall and his subsequent declaration, “I am a man much needed, but little wanted.” Siegel perhaps felt similarly.)
The truth is that Smith’s retreat into the land of his characters Jay and Silent Bob [P1]following the critical and commercial disaster of Jersey Girl (2004) is worthy of neither quite that extravagant praise nor Siegel’s bitter rancor. Clerks II is simply a pretty darn good, utterly and honestly raunchy comedy with a heart like Minnie the Moocher’s — as big as a whale.
While all of Smith’s non-Jersey Girl films have featured connecting characters, this is his first attempt at an actual sequel. Smith’s 1994 film, Clerks, [P2]started it all, so it made sense to completely return to his roots, while incorporating bits and pieces of — and actors from — the connecting films (and real life) in the process. Messy? You bet, but it’s intentionally messy.
It’s also a generous film in that Clerks II is made with an almost shameless desire to please Smith’s fan base. That’s both a plus and a minus. It’s a plus for those who know where Smith is coming from. Gags about Jay (Jason Mewes) and his drug problem (at one point, a character refers to him as “Twelve Step”) are fine for the fans. If you know that part of the film’s genesis was Smith’s promise to do another Jay and Silent Bob movie if Mewes got off drugs and stayed off them, the gags work. If you don’t, you’re apt to feel like a slightly perplexed outsider. However, the film is, overall, sufficiently manic and outrageous that it may not matter much. For every in-joke that zips past the uninitiated, there are three or four that won’t. That’s not a bad average — and it’s a better one when you look at what generally passes for comedy these days.
The setup is brilliant in its simplicity. When the Quick Stop convenience store — site of the original Clerks — burns down, as shown in a clever opening scene that combines the first film’s black-and-white photography with the sequel’s color work, Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) are forced to make a career move. Their idea of a career move takes them all the way up (or down) the street to work in a Mooby’s fast food restaurant. It’s not glamorous, but it’s part of the world they know and it keeps them together. Not too surprisingly, Jay and Silent Bob (Smith) have moved their parking-lot marijuana business there, as well.
Somehow Dante has become engaged to Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach), whose father is giving them a house and Dante a job managing a car wash in Florida. The bulk of the film takes place on what is meant to be Dante’s last day at Mooby’s — a situation complicated by Dante’s relationship with the manager, Becky (Rosario Dawson), and Randal’s desire both to do right by his departing friend and cope with his own sense of being deserted by him. Onto this setup, Smith pins some of his most outrageous gags yet — not to mention probably the most accomplished scene of his career (set to The Jackson 5’s recording of “ABC,” of all things).
Most of it works, but there’s a sense of it sometimes trying too hard, especially in the early scenes. Also, the casting of Smith’s wife, Jennifer Schwalbach, in a central role wasn’t wise, not in the least because the film insists on our believing that she’s really hot (we don’t). Still, the film is rich in comic invention — at least for those who don’t mind their comedy on the raw side (we’re talking donkey acts here). What sets Smith’s raunchiness apart from that found in lesser comedies is a notable lack of mean-spiritedness. Clerks II may push the envelope of an R rating, but I personally found it far less offensive than, say, Date Movie or Little Man.
There are also undercurrents of depth here that address genuine human issues — friendship, love, sexuality, success, conformity — with a shrewd degree of insight and perception to go along with the raunchy humor. Make no mistake, Clerks II is a film that will offend a lot of viewers — just as it did Mr. Siegel — so know what you’re getting into before you go see it and find yourself firing off an angry missive accusing me of recommending “filth.” Rated R for pervasive and crude sexual content including aberrant sexuality, strong language and some drug material.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke