If you had told me back when I first watched Kevin Smith’s original “Clerks” that, 21 years later, not only would I be a hardcore fan of his films, but also would have cosplayed his Silent Bob character over the years, I would have thought you were crazy. “Clerks” was a little too vulgar, and seemingly pointless, back then, but over the years, Smith won me over as a filmmaker who was capable of surprising emotions to go with the vulgarity. In 2006, he returned to his New Jersey Viewaskewniverse with “Clerks II,” and to the surprise of even fans, made it feel less like a sell-out but a thoughtful look at arrested development in growth. The result is, what many would say, his best film, although I think “Chasing Amy” and “Dogma” still find themselves on top for me.
We begin the latest adventures of Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) as they are still at the Quikstop and RST Video after a decade. Dante gets there early, and opens the metal doors and we see the inside of the shop in flames. 911 is called, and their work home is ruined. Cut to a year later, and they have settled into another menial job at Mooby’s, the fast food restaurant chain we first learned about in “Dogma.” Now, however, they have another employee to bounce off of in the sheltered Elias (Trevor Fehrman, in a breakout performance that steals the movie), a more hands-on boss in Becky (Rosario Dawson, who fits in with Smith’s raucous, raunchy comedic rhythms effortlessly), and Dante is getting ready to head down to Florida with his fiancee, Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach, Smith’s wife in real life). Randal is wanting to give his best friend a send-off, but as always with these two, it’s hard to imagine anything going quite as planned, especially with those professional mischief makers Jay (Jason Mewes, who was newly sober at the time, which is reflected in the character) and Silent Bob (Smith) around.
It’s funny watching the evolution of these characters over the years, and more importantly, my relationship with them as a fan. (Unfortunately, you can’t really figure out a place to put the short-lived “Clerks” animated series here. It really is its own thing.) When “Clerks II” came out, I think I was finally at the point in my life that the characters were at in the original, so it’s easier for me to laugh and find common ground with them as they go through the daily grind of customer service and working when you aren’t supposed to, and the ups and downs of dealing with friends and loved ones. Now, a decade after “Clerks II” is released, I’m finally at a point of identification with where the characters are in this film, and while I was very much on board with them when I first watched the sequel with my friend Ron (the Jay to my cosplay Silent Bob), I understand more clearly what both Dante and Randal are feeling, because it’s something I’ve experienced in my life. I’ve never had the doubts Dante does here about my own marriage, but that pull of a different life from the one you have just because it’s expected of you has been very real for me over the years, while the anxiety of losing Dante that Randal brings up after they find themselves in jail because of a “going away” donkey show at Mooby’s sounds very much like what my mother said to me as I was getting ready to get married last year, and she was going to be living on her own for the first time in her life. These are real feelings that Smith is tapping into, albeit in the context of a profane comedy, and they hit you right in the gut.
It’s interesting to consider Kevin Smith as a filmmaker over the past 22 years. When you watch something like “Dogma” or “Chasing Amy” or “Clerks II,” it feels like an evolution for a writer-director best known for dick and fart jokes, even if he’s still making dick and fart jokes. The truth is, though, the maturation of Kevin Smith, filmmaker, is through his embracing of more sophisticated filmmaking style rather than more sophisticated storytelling. He’s still telling ridiculous, outlandish tales, and yes, some of them are more thoughtfully considered, but the growth is in how they are brought to life rather than how they are told in terms of storytelling. That’s not always the case, and even the best production values can’t help a “Cop Out” or “Jersey Girl,” but whether you are looking at a “Tusk” or “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” or “Clerks II” or “Chasing Amy,” you may still be witnessing a filmmaker of limited vision as a teller of stories, but in how those stories come to life, we’ve seen some of the most surprising cinematic developments of the past 25 years from a director who once sold his comic book collection to get the money for “Clerks,” but now finds himself branching out in other ways to find his passion like Dante and Randal have at the end of this movie. I can’t wait to see where he goes next, and if it’s like the rest of his career, it’ll no doubt inspire me in unexpected ways.