Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Clerks II / *** (R)

Dante: Brian O’Halloran
Randall: Jeff Anderson
Rebecca: Rosario Dawson
Jay: Jason Mewes
Silent Bob: Kevin Smith
Elias: Trevor Fehrman
Emma: Jennifer Schwalbach

The Weinstein Company presents a film written and directed by Kevin Smith. Running time: 97 min. Rated R (for pervasive and crude sexual content including aberrant behavior, strong language and some drug content.)

“Clerks II” is one of those films where it’s pretty much pointless to assign a star rating. If you’re a fan of Kevin Smith and his unique mythology of losers from Jersey with their brash outlooks on life, then you’re probably going to like it. If you’re not a fan, you either won’t get it or have already decided it’s all a waste of your time. Some fans may find Smith’s sentimental turn at the end of the film a betrayal and say Smith has lost his veneer of cynicism. Non-fans might see this turn as a nice change of tone for Smith and say he may yet grow up.

I am a great fan of Smith, but not a “Clerks” fanatic specifically. Smith is an incredibly talented filmmaker, and one of the best writers in the business. The original “Clerks” was a bold example of independent filmmaking and intelligent writing, but suffered from inexperienced directing and just plain bad acting. It is an irony that one of the jokes in this film involves deriding the wooden acting of Hayden Christiansen in the latest “Star Wars” trilogy.

“Clerks II” is basically just more of the same from the first film, with clerks Dante and Randall (Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson of the original “Clerks”) leading the way. This time, after losing their jobs at the Quickstop due to an in-store fire, they infuriate customers at a fictional fast food joint, Mooby’s. There is a little plot involving a love triangle between Dante, his fiancée Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach, “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back”) and his boss, Rebecca (Rosario Dawson, “Rent”).

But plot is not really what the Kevin Smith universe is all about. Mostly it is about drug-influenced, inane conversations that would be offensive to one demographic or another if they weren’t so entertaining. Even with their entertainment value, I’m sure many people find the offense before discovering the tongue-firmly-in-cheek humor of it all.

Of course, Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith) are present, fresh out of re-hab and trying not to use, but still dealing to the locals. Mewes, as usual, adds his idiotic verbal rants and seemingly off-character obsessions on music and movies. And Smith stays true to his character’s moniker until vital wisdom is needed near the end of the film.

It is a great irony that Smith writes so cleverly about idiots and inanities. He somehow makes you care for these people who do nothing to deserve anyone’s sympathy, or even empathy. This benefits Smith’s own sentimentality as an independent filmmaker who so obviously is most influenced by Hollywood fluff.

What Smith does with these “Clerks” films (and to a lesser degree with most of his other material) is essentially make a Hollywood sex comedy, but instead of showing us all the flesh, drugs and rock and roll, he has his characters perform a poor man’s philosophical debate about such practices. The subjects range from repressed Christian homosexuality, anal sex, and bestiality to racism, “Star Wars” vs. “The Lord of the Rings”, and internet message boards.

This severely limits Smith’s audience because the juvenile set prefers to see boobs, not listen to some loser talk about seeing them. Conversely, a more intellectual set would like something deeper to ponder in their talking head movies. As a member of both those demographics myself, it works for me. Smith may risk scaring off some of his devoted following, however, with an overly sentimentalized conclusion for Dante and Randall. I, on the other hand, kind of like the way their hearts come into focus for these guys, who up until this point had been fairly two-dimensional characters.

Smith has made much better films than the “Clerks” movies. The first had the benefit of being fairly original and thrived from the buzz surrounding its audacious origin. But Smith is capable of grander and more auspicious filmmaking as evidenced by such films as “Chasing Amy”, “Dogma”, and “Jersey Girl”. It is nice that he retains his affection for these original characters, but I hope this return to his Redbank, New Jersey losers doesn’t mean he’s giving up on aspirations to tackle more substantial projects. I know the Hollywood machine has not tread lightly on Smith, with studios canceling several of his big ticket projects or handing them off to other directors, but it would be a shame if a writer of his talent was relegated to fart jokes and donkey sex for the rest of his career.

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