Friday, March 30, 2012

Retro Review: Clerks II (Kevin Smith, 06)

The following is part of a series where I bring back some of my "older" reviews (those written during my 2004-2011 tenure at the now mostly defunct The Cinematheque) and offer them up to a "newer" generation.

There are just some things in life that should be left well enough alone. For instance, no one should ever do a remix of Beethoven's 5th and make a Disco smash out of it. Also, no one should ever do a spin-off of M*A*S*H or turn Sex and the City into a PG-13 family TV show or make a second Star Wars trilogy full of bad acting and make-believe special effects (I'm still reeling over that one Mr. Lucas). Also, no one should ever break Babe Ruth's record (unless it is a steroid-free Hank Aaron) and no one should ever draw a moustache on The Mona Lisa (other than perhaps Marcel Duchamp). But most important of all, no one - and I mean no one, Kevin Smith included - should ever attempt to or even think of making a sequel to Clerks - a film that stands firmly upon its own two feet due mainly to its individuality over anything else. Especially if it ends up being anything even remotely similar to the achingly disappointing film I sat through recently at a Philadelphia screening.

Sure, there may be a few glimmers of hope - most notably Randal's mini-diatribe about the failed heroics of Lord of the Rings (although even that glistening moment cannot hope to compare to the wry pop-cultured conversations of the original) and the addition of a new character in the person of Trevor Fuhrman's freshly conceived Elias, a naive innocent with a love for anything Transformers and Lord of the Rings, who Randal will eventually corrupt (sort of) - but a few glimmers doth not a good film make, and the witty, droll, dry, ironic, mocking, sardonic, twisted, view-askew intelligentsia that was Smith's debut feature is now nearly completely absent in this twelve-years-in-the-waiting watery letdown of a sequel, remake, interpretation, cover song, or whatever you might call it film. No less clumsy than the original, or inexplicably any less amateur feeling save for the use of colour film stock this time around, but with a dozen years, seven films and millions of dollars between them, a first-timer's cinephiliac heart of gold no longer plays as a viable excuse for what Smith has handed us here today.

It has always been a rule of thumb - a professional courtesy if you will - that we critics hold back on our reviews until the days just prior to a film's release, so as not to greedily badmouth a film before it gets its shot at those ever-important opening weekend grosses (although I'm pretty sure they wouldn't mind as long as it were a rave review), but perhaps the adamant - almost militaristic - fervor for which The Weinstein Company representatives have "strong-armed" the US critics into a complete and utter silence between our first seeing the film six weeks or so prior and our "allowal" to release our thoughts this very week speaks more for what they thought of their film than what we may think. If it were that great, why wouldn't they want word of mouth to filter out over time? Were they afraid even Smith's drooling lapdog fanboys would be turned off if they heard or saw too much?

But enough with the kvetching, as far as the story goes - now that I can tell it - gone is the iconical Quick Stop - burned to a crisp in the opening B&W-to-colour transition scene - and in its place is Smith's beloved "Mooby's" fast food restaurant (last seen in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back) wherein Dante Hicks and Randal Graves - still portrayed by Brad O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson (with about zero percent growth as actors by the way) - continue to schlep to and bitch about a long stream of annoyances, known to anyone who has ever worked in the service industry as customers - which here include cameos by Smith Alum turned superstars Jason Lee and Ben Affleck. And no matter how little of that old magic Smith can actually replicate (and it is very little indeed), the same old same old is still there in a way, as Dante is still passionately passionless about his job and still pines for one girl while supposedly in love with another (here these women are played by Rosario Dawson who better have gotten paid a hell of a lot for a role so beneath her, and, in yet another wasted wave of Hollywood nepotism, Smith's actual wife, Jennifer Schwalbach, who should really never try to act again) and Randal is still the obnoxious mouther who pisses off customers through foul language, an imploringly humourous obsession with Tijuana donkey sex shows (called interspecies erotica in one of the film's funnier lines of dialogue) and a lackadaisical irreverence for hard work. Only now, Dante and Randal are twelve years older, about twenty-five pounds heavier and attempting some sort of "adult" outlook on life, friendship and happiness. True, Randal - who is more the star here than Dante, as opposed to his second banana routine to Dante the first time around - does seem to have a bit more depth now, although it seems as if he was forced to trade in his callow wry edge for that little bit of mock-depth, which was the one thing holding his character together in the first place.

Perhaps Smith does bring some sort of closure to the lives of Dante and Randal, and maybe, to a lesser degree, to the characters of Jay and Silent Bob too (who incidentally are smartly left mainly as a background joke instead of coming forefront and center like they had in Smith's bottom half oeuvre pieces, Dogma and Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back), and maybe he does try to bring some heart to his otherwise one-dimensional cast of players, but because that closure is so staid and predictable (the ending should come as no surprise whatsoever), and that heart is more broken than profound, we nearly forget we are watching a film written and directed by the same man who gave us - along with the original Clerks - the highly under-rated Mallrats and the oeuvre-acme of Chasing Amy, as well as the uneven yet mostly salvageable Dogma. Hell, even the in-joke laden mediocrity that was Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back had more chutzpah than this film. We'll just take care to skip right over Jersey Girl (Smith's 2004 film for which he publicly apologized), although, thanks to that film, Clerks II will forever avoid being Smith's worst film.

Perhaps I am being a bit too hard on the old boy (a subconscious kidney shot reaction to my guttural adoration for the original? - sort of, sex with the ex ain't all it's cracked up to be?) and perhaps a probable rating of 37 out of 100 (the real Smith aficionados get it) is a bit on the low side for a film that is at least partially entertaining, albeit in a rather pathetic high school reunion nightmare sort of way (a sort of hey-look-what's-happened-to-him kind of entertainment more than actual humour or even pastiche) and although the number I have arrived at - Smith's trusty old number thirty-seven - may just be me being a disappointed old lover more than anything more concrete about the film itself, the number should at least serve as bittersweet reminder to all those clued-in fanboys, letting them know that this film pretty much does suck.

Possibly like other raw first films of the current gen-X-ration of American auteurs, such as Linklater's Slacker and Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, Clerks should never have been "messed" with in the first place. Maybe not each filmmaker's best work, they are their most personal - if not in subject or subtext, then at least in mood and/or a sort of marooned nostalgia - and in being so raw and personal, there is probably no successful way of flaming up that old magic one more time. Instead, like Linklater and Tarantino, who have moved on and progressed as filmmakers in each and every one of their successive films - only dipping with a surgeon's touch into that old well now and again - Smith should also move on and grow as a filmmaker. If Linklater is the philosopher-king of the slacker generation and Tarantino its renegade warrior-king, then Smith should take his allotted role as the sewer-mouthed yet sensitive joker-king a little more seriously - ironically enough - and move on as well - something he seemed to have been working at with Chasing Amy.

In the beginning he was like a Gen X Oscar Wilde wannabe - full of equal parts irony and pop culture kitsch - now he is more like a studio-syrened sailor shilling his latest wares like any corporate slob in a Spider-Man tee shirt and hightop converse. Putting the pop culture aside for about a thousand sad bestiality and "porch monkey" jokes and the irony aside for, well irony, to be ironic - but a second rate irony at best. In the end, no matter how much heart you pour into a film (and I believe Smith has put all of his heart into the making of each of his films - for better or for worse) if that heart is put forth with a sense of duty instead of a sense of desire (and the internet was lousy with tons of cyber-nerds constantly clamoring for this film's arrival that the levy had to break eventually) then it is inevitable as Old Faithful blowing its top and spewing hot water over everyone watching that this film would suffer for a lack of passion from its creator. And it is just that dutiful soldier feel that we get from Smith's latest, as though perhaps he has secretly retired from filmmaking to become some strange recluse living in the backwoods of the Garden State, nibbling on 'nilla wafers, peeing into old mayonnaise jars and reading J.D. Salinger by firelight, only to have been replaced by a self appointed doppelganger who instead of making Kevin Smith movies is actually making his best attempt at Kevin Smith covers like some third rate Doors tribute band with a fourth rate Jim Morrison look-a-like trying vainly to belt out Peace Frog in some dingy, half-empty, smoke-filled, beer-stained dive bar somewhere along old highway 22.

But we are forgetting one inevitable focus group that may very well make this film work - at least on a financial level - as they did with the over-played one-note Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back. That would be Smith's never-dying fanboy base of comic book aficionados and action-figure hoarding ├╝ber-geeks. Those missing Smith children led astray and away by the hum-drum domestication of Jersey Girl, whose rather limited genre-specific group mentality should bring them clamoring back into the fold just like the pretty-low-on-the-cinematic-food-chain-comic-book-level-bathroom-humour-junkies that they are. After all, their expectations probably aren't that high to begin with so it should sink in and suit them just fine. As for me, I think I'll rent the original Clerks and dream of better times at the Quick Stop. 

[Originally published at The Cinematheque on 07/18/06] 


Dan O. said...

I haven't seen this one in so long but I remember laughing a lot even though I do think hat smith gets a little cheesy by the end. He's a great raunchy comedic writer, but when it comes to his sensitive writing, it can be a little too much but I did love everything from Chasing Amy, and I guess that had a lot of his sensitive writing too. Good review Kevyn. Nothing special, but it's always good to see the gang back.

Chip Lary said...

I agree on most of the "bad sequels" you mentioned, but I do not consider Clerks II to be one of them. I enjoyed the movie quite a bit and would put it as the third best of Smith's films (after Clerks and Chasing Amy).

I'm old enough to remember critics reacting badly to the announced sequel to Star Wars. They thought The Empire Strikes Back was going to be a really bad idea because the original was such a classic.

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