“They are treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality and bad poetry.”
– Marty Di Bergi, reading a review of a Spinal Tap album in “This is Spinal Tap”
“That’s nit-picking, isn’t it?”
– Nigel Tufnel, Spinal Tap lead guitarist
It was twelve years ago that New Jersey convenience store twentysomethings Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) were hoisted into the unlikely position of generational spokesmen when newcomer Kevin Smith maxed out his credit cards to make the grainy black-and-white “Clerks.” The rapid-fire philosophical discussions of nerdy pop culture and frighteningly frank sex talk that pervaded that cult classic have influenced and been watered down for things like mainstream TV sitcoms ever since. (Ironically, Smith’s own animated “Clerks” sitcom was censored and eventually cancelled by ABC after only 2 episodes were shown.)
|“Do you guys know what ‘clerkin’ off’ means?”|
“Clerks II” finds Dante and Randal still working behind the counter, only now they flip burgers at the obnoxiously decorated fast food chain Mooby’s. Purple and yellow are to Mooby’s what red and yellow are to McDonald’s, making sure that the promotion of “Clerks II” to full-color film retains some of the original’s unsightliness. The budget for the sequel was reportedly around 5 million, which is an upgrade for sure, but still a ridiculously cheap movie by Hollywood standards.
Ever-resistant to change, it feels like the next logical (and lateral) step for Dante and Randal to suffer more ignominy at the hands of annoying customers while serving time at another crummy job. Had the movie coasted along with another series of wacky encounters between sparring foes on different sides of the counter, “Clerks II” would have felt like a completely retread experience. Smith throws a curveball at his audience, though, by suggesting that the guys are here partly because, deep down, they might secretly enjoy doing this.
Change is afoot on this day, however. Dante is spending his last day at work before moving to Florida and getting married to an overbearing woman who has everything planned out for him. His manager Becky (Rosario Dawson), who projects an unconvincing air of confidence, tries to put on a brave face as her favorite employee prepares to leave. Randal, while also disappointed, wants to make sure that his friend has a last day he will not soon forget. His grand plan (no spoilers!) leads us to the next topic.
“Clerks II” may also hold the distinction of being the most offensive movie this side of an R-rating. As with the first film, it isn’t nudity or violence that sets off the alarms. It’s the language. Nothing is off-limits to Smith, and the characters discuss virtually any scenario imaginable that involves any kind of bodily orifice. This is toilet humor by its very definition, but something about its absolute fearlessness is also funny as hell. In addition, there is enough (repressed?) homophobia and supposedly “naïve” racism (mercilessly played for laughs) to raise an eyebrow or two.
|The Abbott and Costello of drug dealers|
A very strange thing happens along the way. Smith has never been a subtle filmmaker, and the abrupt tonal changes from flirty and sensitive to uninhibited and revolting alert the audience that another movie is just bursting beneath the surface to get out. Somehow, between all the shocks and outlandishly perverted set-ups, Smith manages to stumble his way into sincerity.
It is more easily forgivable, then, when an unfortunate tongue-in-cheek musical montage set to the Jackson 5’s “123” appears as a cheesy crutch to introduce a major plot development. Smith should have had the balls to trust his actors with another one of his astute conversations about relationships. That would have been a more effective way to further show how Dante and Becky have a real affection for each other.
Like the modest characters with rough edges (and some rough acting) that populate “Clerks II,” the movie itself doesn’t have any higher artistic aspirations. It doesn’t need them. Smith knows these people, and he represents a far wittier and more believable vision of them here than he did of Ben Affleck’s young urban professional in his more “mature” 2004 effort, “Jersey Girl.”
It is a typical move to have slackers Dante and Randal re-examine their standing in life, but a clever and natural extension of their story for them only to do that when absolutely forced to by strange and deplorable circumstances. When it is all said and done, “Clerks II” has the most hearty laughs of any film this year, and turns out to be a fitting and surprisingly touching ode to thirtysomething underachievers.