Clerks III

Clerks III brings back the Kevin Smith we haven't seen in a long time – the guy with something to say. After becoming a star on the indie scene during the '90s, Smith tried to go mainstream with the mediocre action-comedy Cop Out. When that didn't succeed, he went the complete other direction, cranking out three non-commercial, virtually unwatchable movies in a row: Red State, Tusk, and (I'm shuddering as I type this) Yoga Hosers. Then he reinvented himself again, as a guy lost in self-nostalgia. Jay & Silent Bob Reboot was an attempt to mine past success. Despite some funny bits, it felt like that old magic was gone.

Well, the magic is sure back now. And there's something new, too.

Smith draws upon his own health issues for inspiration. Dante (Brian O'Halloran) is more depressed than ever, for reasons I won't divulge. He's still behind the counter at the Quick Stop with acerbic best friend Randal (Jeff Anderson). They own the place now, but they're still clerking for a living. Is this what middle-aged men should be doing? Unexpectedly, it's Randal who starts wondering about that after he suffers a near-fatal heart attack in the store. Feeling unaccomplished in life, he vows to create something that he can leave behind, specifically a movie about working in a convenience store. Yes, he decides to (more or less) make Clerks.

A plot device that meta could have come off as self-aggrandizing, except that Clerks III has a ring of truth to it. The movie utilizes actual behind-the-scenes lore from Clerks to authentically capture the vibe of independent filmmaking. As one example, Randal enlists Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) to be side characters in his project. Jay is supposed to act like himself – as was Mewes in the original – yet is too nervous to perform in front of other people (also like Mewes). Of course, Smith already did a movie about independent moviemaking, Zack & Miri Make a Porno; the use of more personal anecdotes here gives Randal's story an extra boost.

Plenty of references to the “Askewniverse” are present, most of them pretty funny. I love how Jay and Silent Bob have turned the old video store into a legal marijuana shop, but haven't figured out they don't have to sell weed in the same surreptitious manner they used to. Other characters from Clerks make appearances, and jokes from the past are built upon or adapted in new ways. Several gags do fall flat. A bit involving a kooky doctor (Amy Sedaris) is forced, and a montage of actors auditioning for Randal's production includes an abundance of famous faces, most notably Ben Affleck, causing it to feel like the stunt it is. The film is best when staying true to its world, which it mostly does.

Clerks III has another element that makes it special: heart. I didn't expect to get misty-eyed twice during a Clerks movie, yet that's exactly what happened. The story's underlying theme is looking back at your life and assessing its worth. Without giving away what happens, Dante and Randal both, in different ways, take stock of their accomplishments, their failures, and where the road has taken them. Smith pays that off beautifully, with a finale that possesses emotional depth at a level his previous films haven't had. You can feel the personal angle coming through. This is him coming to terms with his life and work in the wake of his own heart attack.

Viewers who have been with this franchise since the beginning may have an experience similar to mine. I saw Clerks in my 20s, not long removed from having a dead-end retail job similar to Dante and Randal's. (I worked in a Hallmark card store.) The sarcasm and apathy of the characters was relatable. When Clerks II came out, I was approaching 40 and, like our heroes, finally feeling settled into life and in more in control of my future. Clerks III comes out as I'm 54, married with kids, established in a career, and more than a little prone to reflecting on the journey to this point. Watching these characters, who have been in my life for 28 years, evaluate where they are in middle age struck a chord. You do that at this stage. Smith is doing it with this film, and inviting the audience to soul-search with him. The effect stirs up a lot of feelings.

I really didn't think Clerks III had anywhere to go, especially since Clerks 2 was such a perfect send-off for the characters. I was wrong. Kevin Smith can still bring the funny out in the Askewniverse's citizens. He also smartly, insightfully recognizes that these wise-cracking convenience store employees have changed over time, as we all do. In its own weird, kooky way, the Clerks series is like a raunchy version of Michael Apted's Up documentaries or Richard Linklater's Before... trilogy. We reunite with these people every so many years to see how they – and, by extension, we -- have grown.

out of four

Clerks III is rated R for pervasive language, crude sexual material, and drug content. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.