Clerks II is a perfect example of what a sequel should be. Too many sequels subscribe to the philosophy that you have to take everything that was good about the original and add more, even to the point of overdose. (I’m talking about you, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.) In contrast, Clerks II does not merely offer more of the same. Instead, it takes characters and situations that were created in the original, then expands and deepens them. It is a film filled with familiar faces and scenarios, yet the movie has a tone all its own.
The 1994 movie was a look at mid-20’s angst from behind the counter of a New Jersey convenience store. The main characters, Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson), were two guys whose lives had stalled just at the moment when they should have been taking off. Days were spent mocking customers, debating the merits of the Star Wars movies, and analyzing the failures of their personal and non-professional lives. Clerks was an ode to that feeling you get when you know you’re technically grown up but you still don’t know what the hell to do with your life.
Clerks II finds the convenience store burned to the ground. Instead of going forward with their lives, Dante and Randal get a job at a fast food restaurant called Mooby’s (which will be a familiar setting to fans of writer/director Kevin Smith’s other films). The only difference in their lives in the last ten years is that Dante is engaged to Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach, Smith’s real life wife) and is about to move to Florida with her. Emma is the hot girl who would never give Dante the time of day in high school but, having unsuccessfully played the field, now thinks it would good to settle down with a nice guy. Randal has doubts about the sincerity of their feelings for each other and doesn’t hesitate to say so.
Neither does Becky (Rosario Dawson), the Mooby’s supervisor who has a formed a close friendship with Dante. They have the kind of chemistry that Dante and Emma are missing, although neither of them is quite willing to overtly act upon it. Through the course of events on Dante’s last day at the restaurant (none of which I will spoil here), he has to decide which direction to choose: Should he run off and marry Emma, living the kind of life he’s always told himself he should aspire to, or should he stay in Jersey with his best friend and his not-quite-romantic-interest, potentially stuck behind that counter for the rest of his days?
Clerks II is one of the best movies ever made about being a guy. I don’t know if it’s the same for women, but men reach that point in their lives where they need to define what they stand for. It can mean the difference between getting married and starting a family or continuing to live the frat boy, hang-with-your-buddies lifestyle, among other things. Kevin Smith obviously knows of what he writes, as the movie explores the idea in considerable depth. Dante is in his 30’s but still young, yet he feels time is running out. He is overdue to make his mark. The self-imposed pressure to make a choice is staggering.
Part of what makes it work is that fans of the original Clerks (such as myself) have seen the flick time and time again over the years. We feel like we know Dante and Randal. We know how they think and what their worldview is. Therefore, the value of their friendship means something to us as well. Both characters deal with some anxiety over the possibility of separating. Dante feels like Randal is holding him back; Randal resents the fact that Dante might pick up and leave for something “better.” Despite this, both quietly recognize that they need each other. There is a surprisingly touching scene in which the boys race go-carts as “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” plays on the soundtrack. The whole sequence is about the bond that forms between longtime buddies. Smith might say that Dante and Randal are “heterosexual life partners.” We, as fans, feel that bond too.
O’Halloran and Anderson both show expanded range as actors, handing the more emotional moments just as well as the moments of raucous comedy. Also outstanding is Rosario Dawson, who is perfectly cast as Becky, the type of girl all guys dream of: she’s gorgeous, and hanging with her is like hanging with one of the guys. Dawson gives the movie an emotional center, helping us to understand how staying in Jersey might have some pull for Dante. The actress is often the best part of any movie she’s in, and this is my favorite performance from her so far.
Even with all its best-pal poignancy, Clerks II generally manages to avoid being sticky and sentimental (although it comes close once or twice). It is, in fact, the funniest movie I’ve seen so far this year. Smith has a knack for hilarious, off-color humor that nevertheless serves the story, and that style is on full display here. There’s the requisite sex talk (including a raunchy running gag about a donkey show) and a debate about the merits of the Lord of the Rings trilogy vs. the original Star Wars trilogy that is nothing short of brilliant.
Of course, there is also a healthy dose of Jay and Silent Bob (played by Jason Mewes and Smith), the two loitering drug dealers who follow Dante and Randal from the convenience store to the restaurant. These characters – beloved and revered by Smith fans – are up to their familiar antics despite having just been released from court-ordered rehab. (They still deal, they just don’t use.) As before, many of the biggest laughs come from them.
When Smith announced he was making a sequel the film that put him on the map, some cried sellout. Nothing could be further from the truth. Clerks II is its own animal. The original did a superb job depicting the simmering resentment that comes from being stuck in a dead-end job when you know your life should be amounting to more. This sequel goes a step further, dealing with the familiar struggle to figure out how your life should be defined. It ends with a final shot that is perfectly realized, and that will give fans a feeling of warmth and nostalgia. Clerks II is a very, very good film.
( 1/2 out of four)
Note: As a long-time admirer of Kevin Smith’s films, I have written this review knowing fans will be the prime audience. However, I think that the movie stands alone, and people who did not see the original Clerks may still enjoy it quite a bit.
Clerks II is rated R for pervasive sexual and crude content including abberant sexuality, strong language and some drug material. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.
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