I have a crystal clear memory of seeing the original Clerks at the 1994 Chicago International Film Festival. I’d heard some things about it after its premiere nine months earlier at Sundance, but all I really remembered about what I’d heard since then was that it was in black-and-white, and it looked like it was all shot on security cameras inside the store where the titular characters worked. But after I saw it that October evening, a lot of my beliefs about what made a film interesting and unique had shifted. Smith is two years younger than me, and he made this movie for next-to-no money by maxing out his credit cards. I was never interested in making my own film, but if the guy who wrote and directed Clerks could do it, maybe I could too (that jolt of creative energy lasted about a weekend).
The two Clerks movies (Clerks II followed in 2006) were always the place where Smith could go to reflect on what was going on in his life up to that point, and as much as I adore the first film, I think Clerks II is one of his absolute best. It’s funnier, more poignant, and somehow both sweeter and more vicious than the first. Having Rosario Dawson in it helped expand the emotional capacity of the other actors (most of whom aren’t the deepest performers). It also reflects a turning point in Smith’s career where he started seeing himself as a director for hire as long as he also go to make his own shit every so often.
Clerks III might be his ultimate attempt at turning real life into art, since it opens with Jeff Anderson’s Randall suffering a heart attack, sending his co-clerk Dante (Brian O’Halloran), into a tizzy about losing someone else close to him (after the loss of his wife and daughter in the second film). Randall survives and is inspired to do something more lasting with his life, something that will live on as his legacy, and he decides to make a movie about his life as a convenience store clerk—a movie that bears a striking resemblance to a certain 28-year-old Kevin Smith movie. To save money, he gets everyone to play themselves, including the ever-present stoners, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), who now run the next-door former video store (now legal-weed store, of course).
Smith using his own real-life heart attack as the inspiration and kicking-off point for this story is a great idea, but the resulting film is anything but. Smith’s plan seems to be two-fold: throw in a bunch of cameos from people he has befriended over the years (Ben Affleck, Justin Long, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Fred Armisen, and even a couple supporting actors from the original film). We also get the return of Clerks II Mooby’s employee Elias (Trevor Fehrman), who starts out as a born-again Christian, trying to convert Randal and Dante, and by the end turns into a full-blown, Goth-level Satanist. And since Dante is still in deep mourning over his late wife’s passing, Becky (Dawson) shows up to him to give him advice and guidance (less as a ghost and more of an imaginary friend). Those scenes are both great, because Dawson is a tremendous actress, and embarrassing, because O’Halloran is not. And when he breaks down and cries at one point, you might be tempted to look away from the screen.
Clerks III doesn’t start to get truly cringe-worthy until filming for the movie within the movie begins. Silent Bob is made the film’s cinematographer, giving Smith his one chance to speak about the aesthetics he’ll be going for as he shoots. After that inspired moment, the movie becomes little more than a succession of re-creations, with older actors attempting to look younger, doing all the same things they did in the first film, and none of it is funny unless you have a medical condition that makes you giggle if you get deja vu or see something you recognize. Seriously, audience members will likely simply sit there saying under their breath “I remember that. I remember that. I sort of remember that.” And when we finally do see pieces of what they’re shooting, it’s actually footage from the original Clerks, complete with the younger versions of the cast.
If Smith wanted to make a post-heart attack remembrance piece, Clerks III could have dug so much deeper. I mean, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot was no Chekov play, but at least it had a couple nice moments that dealt with the meaning and value of friendship and family. This new work is little more than a highlight reel, and even the attempts at getting deep flop around on screen because many of these actors can’t handle the weight of genuine heartbreak and dashed dreams. Clerks III feels like the end of this series, and that’s probably for the best. That being said, I’m still more than a little bit curious as to whether Mallrats 2 is still an actual thing any longer.
The film begins a limited theatrical run beginning today. Also, on Monday, November 7, Kevin Smith will return to the Music Box Theatre for a post-film Q&A after a screening of Clerks III, as part of his Clerks III: The Convenience Tour. Details and tickets are available here.
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