"Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come." -- Herman Melville

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July 26, 2006

Clerks II
US 2006, Written and Directed by Kevin Smith
(****) of four

Before we jump into Clerks II, I think it would offer a little perspective if we took a quick jaunt through Kevin Smith's filmography first. Let's go...

We start in 1994 with the original Clerks., Kevin Smith's indelible masterpiece. Brazenly dirty and refreshingly uncouth at the time, its smart gutter humor and snap-crackle dialogue ("Hey, you and I have something in common: we both eat Chinese." "Dick." "Exactly.") haven't aged a bit in 12 years. Even the benign lines are endlessly quotable (just ask my girlfriend how often she's heard my Randal whine of "I wanna rent a movie!") and it introduced Smith's two iconic pairings, Dante & Randal and Jay & Silent Bob. Easily one of my favorite movies of all time and a well-deserved (****).

Early success brings money and Hollywood, so, (comparatively) big budget in hand, Smith took his first tumble with 1995's Mallrats. Like all of Smith's films, it has its moments (Ethan Suplee and the 3-D painting comes to mind) and it deserves much credit for being the film that introduced us all to Jason Lee, but the various love stories are caricatures and Jay and Silent Bob are taken so ridiculously over-the-top that Smith should have just animated their sections. Above (or below) all else, though, is Jeremy London, who offers up one of the most shockingly awful, movie-crippling performances I can remember. He single-handedly torpedoes every scene and alone lops a whole star off my rating. Fuck Jeremy London. (**)

Stinging from the critical backlash from Mallrats, Smith went back to dialogue-heavy character work in 1997's Chasing Amy, one of those rare movies that I actually like less each time I see it. The first time, you're carried by the trademark Smith wit and the novelty of the plot, but each time after that the plot slowly descends from charming novelty to somewhat-grating melodrama to full-on skip-this-scene unrealism. Naturally, there's still gold to be found (the bar discussion on sex-related injuries is one nugget), but too often I just wanted to fast-forward through Affleck's endless pining over Joey Lauren Adams (not helping matters is the commentary on the Criterion DVD where Smith fawns over ex-girlfriend Adams at excessive, embarrassing levels). I don't want to watch it anymore so I don't start actively hating it. (** and 1/2)

1999 brought Dogma, Smith's most ambitious movie to date. If you haven't seen it, give it a shot, but to really enjoy it, you need to follow the Jason and Marc Dogma Edit (trademark pending). First, start by skipping any scene involving Linda Fiorentino. Cut them right out. Gets rid of all the dragging plot explanations and boring quasi-religious ramblings (especially anything involving Alan Rickman), not to mention Fiorentino's overly-dour, unfun performance. Sadly, it also cuts most of Jay and Silent Bob, so you may need to slip a few scenes in to give them some love. Instead, make this Bartleby and Loki's movie, especially before the plot catches up with them at the end. The slaughters at the Mooby's office and in the bus ("Whose house? Run's house!"), the airport opening, basically everything until Bartleby goes off the deep end. Great stuff well-played by Affleck and Damon. Toss in some always-welcome George Carlin and the Brian O'Halloran/Jeff Anderson cameos and you've got a ripping 30-45 minute short film. That gets a (****). Too bad the majority of the movie is only a (**), so let's just split the difference and settle on a (***).

I'm going to take a pass on 2001's Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. I've seen it maybe once since the theatres and it was at least a couple years ago. Like usual, I remember some good (I'm a sucker for endless self-deprecating celeb cameos and you've gotta love Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season), some bad (the far-too-drawn-out-with-no-laughs Charlie's Angels break-in scene), but there's a lot more lost in my brain fog. I've been meaning to watch it again, but let's just slap a (***) on there and move on, shall we?

In 2004, Smith decided to move away from the usual suspects and try his hand at a more traditional dramedy, the ill-fated Jersey Girl. While it's been relegated to punchline status at this point thanks to having the unfortunate luck of coming out in the wake of Bennifer, it deserved better. It certainly is his most conventional film, but there's the same earnestness that stands out in all his work. Even if he jokes about it now, Smith was making something close to his heart and I hope he doesn't see this as a sign that he can't be willing to take a chance. It doesn't reach any of the same heights as his earlier work, but it manages to dodge many of the earlier lows (though I'll never know how high/drunk he was when he came up with the names Ollie and Gertie Trinke). Like with Dogma, I'm always happy to see George Carlin work out his acting muscles, so some extra points there. Despite the bludgeoning it received by critics and fans, it's not a disaster. (** and 1/2)

So that brings us to this year and Clerks II. The point of all this is that I'm not a Kevin Smith fanboy predisposed to anoint each new film as a Modern Day Classic. I truly love one of his films and fall all over the map on the others. But this isn't just any new comedy from Smith, it's a sequel to a movie I adore and, accordingly, I was absolutely scared to death. As much as I hoped he would succeed, I was dreading much more watching my fond memories of Clerks raped in front of me. So imagine my surprise when I walked out of Clerks II having seen Smith's best movie since the original. While there's plenty of the pop-culture warfare, ceaseless obscenity, and deft wordplay that marks all of his films, it occurred to me what separates these two from all the movies in between: Dante and Randal. Easily the two best characters Smith has created, they keep the proceedings grounded and focused purely on the comedy without slipping into cartoonishness (Mallrats) or melodrama (Chasing Amy) or getting bogged down in self-importance (Dogma) or self-indulgence (JSBSB). While most actors just turn into Kevin Smith when reading his dialogue, Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson have the natural rapport of two guys sitting around bullshitting their lives away. I didn't realize how much I'd missed them. Rosario Dawson (looking unbelievable--and that's even before the dance number Smith dedicates entirely to her breasts) holds her own and gets a fun thank you in the credits (something like, "Thanks to Rosario for giving such a great performance that you actually believe she'd fuck a guy who looks like Dante.") Smith tips his hat to the legions of Clerks fans with numerous in-jokes and casting surprises without letting things reach the endlessly-reflexive level of JSBSB. He even finds a way to close the story with a mature, thoughtful coda and some not-unwelcome heartstring tugs. There will no doubt be those who will scoff at the film and piss on Smith's intentions, but I walked into the movie scared, I had a lot of big laughs, and I walked out happy. Hard to ask for too much more than that. I'm even starting to get excited about what Clerks III might be ten years from now. I'll close with an all-timer from Randal: "I hate everyone and everything seems stupid to me." Couldn't have said it better myself, Randal. It's nice to have you guys back. (****)
(IMDb)