“That’s the way we did it in the ’90s son!” exclaims Jay (Jason Mewes) in the Clerks III trailer. I miss the ’90s too, Jay. The ’90s was a time when cell phones didn’t conquer our lives, the internet wasn’t a personal necessity for everyone, and political incorrectness was politely corrected. We often look fondly at the past because the present isn’t satisfying. Returning to where he began, Kevin Smith attempts to reconnect with audiences in a personal essay that made its point with Clerks II yet lingers in limbo with Clerks III.
When in doubt, go back to the wellspring for inspiration. Kevin Smith’s career has taken some interesting turns. Being one of the disciples of mumblecore, Kevin Smith’s 1994 cult hit Clerks made a point of giving it your all, but at a half measure. Where the script emphasizes the story, the cinematography takes a back seat by shooting in black and white film, simply because it was the most affordable stock at the time in a pre-digital world. The blocking is primarily a master shot in which everything necessary in the frame is fully displayed with brief cutaways, usually comprised of standard over-the-shoulder shots.
There’s a magic to Clerks’ minimalism. Since the story is about a couple of lazy guys, the laid-back style works in the picture’s favor. That gritty charm only works for one film, so Mr. Smith chose a linear approach for Clerks’ heartfelt sequel. Knowing he had a bigger budget, Smith had fun with his money by including a dance scene, plus the most colorful donkey show I’ve ever seen. Clerks II had a heart that the cynical first film didn’t have. It was about love, facing a midlife crisis, and gaining happiness in ways that aren’t tied to America’s usual viewpoint on success, and ended with us watching Randall (Jeff Anderson) with a lump in his throat telling Dante (Brian O’Halloran) he’s “a beautiful man”, his best friend and that he never wants to leave him.
Cut to sixteen years later, Clerks III attempts to rekindle the magic of both films, yet to limited avail. Going full meta with his work, Kevin Smith makes a movie about making a movie. After suffering a heart attack in the Quick Stop convenience store, Randall has a mid-life epiphany. He needs to leave a mark in the world. So he gathers the courage to make a film about being a convenience store clerk. Dante agrees to help Randall make his film despite the subject matter hitting too close to home for Dante’s taste.
The life Dante had planned with his wife didn’t pan out the way he thought it would. Years after his disastrous relationship, Dante can’t move on with his life. There’s not a thing in this world that won’t remind him of his beloved Becky (Rosario Dawson). Hence, Dante needs Randall’s film to give a sense of purpose to his existence. Of course, Dante doesn’t know this consciously. That’s up for the audience to figure out.
If this all sounds depressing for a comedy, that’s because Clerks III is unexpectedly sorrowful. Clerks II had its drama, but it always kept delivering on the jokes. It even ended on a high note with Dante and Randall purchasing the Quick Stop convenience store for themselves. Henceforth, starting the same, yet very different life. Now facing their fifties, Randall and Dante are beginning to realize that the life of customer service perhaps wasn’t the best idea for a future.
While making their movie, Dante has multiple occasions where he breaks into tears, reminiscing about his failed marriage. Much credit should be given to Brian O’Halloran, who’s never been afraid to show vulnerability, especially in this film. That’s probably why his character is such a draw to women. He’s comfortable in his own skin, but can be macho as well. Dante’s the guy who will tell you how beautiful the world is and then shotgun a beer.
When Randall begins filming his version of Clerks, the film Force Awakens-es itself. Between Dante’s crying bits, Clerks III spends most of its time remaking the first film through the prism of Randall shooting the movie. Almost every exchange from Clerks is recreated in Clerks III. Although Clerks was cinematically half-assed, the writing helped make the film stand out, even to this day. Just like Star Wars trying yet failing to recreate the magic the first two films did, Clerks III can’t reignite the spark from a used match. No matter how many callbacks Kevin Smith gives, I want to see something fresh or new, ideally with some better jokes.
The humor in Clerks III doesn’t have the same impact the other two had. Where there could be banter about the new Star Wars is substituted for an honest fourth wall breaking joke regarding Disney suing Randall. The banter about the 2nd Death Star contractors or Lord of The Rings vs Star Wars is missing. Granted, much of the homophobic humor wouldn’t float in 2022. Almost all pop culture references are left in the produce isle to rot. What we do get for humor this time around are more dick jokes than you can shake a copy of Yoga Hosers at. And who better to tell them than worst part of The Mandalorian, Amy Sedaris as Randall’s heart surgeon. In case you didn’t know a joke was supposed to be funny, Sedaris will shout the punchline at the audience like a nagging aunt.
Clerks and Clerks II holds up today because of how different they were. Where Clerks was an indie darling, Clerks II was a studio-funded picture with the spirit of a small film. Clerks III is the typical third picture that attempts to sandwich together the strength of the first two films to create an all too familiar taste. Clerks III is more minimal than Clerks II but is far more emotional than the second, which is a problem. When Randall confesses his love for Dante, that scene hits a home run because we don’t see that type of vulnerability from the standoffish Randall. Now, everyone’s gunning for an Oscar moment. None of the emotion is meaningless but perhaps a bit too meta for its own good.
You know you’ve gotten old when Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) is thin. After suffering a heart attack, Kevin’s outlook on life has changed. Switching from carnivore to vegan, Smith embraces his health. As a man who used to be fat, I understand Smith’s need to be in tip-top shape. Aware that we’re all on borrowed time, Smith decided to return to the convenience store in New Jersey, where his life changed forever. In case you don’t know that was his intent, Kevin gives a brief voice-over explaining why he made a finale to Clerks during the middle of the credits.
I can tell Mr. Smith has a big heart, but it may be too big. Clerks is a middle finger to ordinary society. Where most people see success in becoming a CEO or celebrity, Dante and Randall are content with owning a broken-down shop in the middle of New Jersey. I applaud that different type of mindset, but Clerks III treads familiar thematic waters that sound more like a broken record than a profound look on life.
After seeing Clerks III, I decided to dust off my two-disc Clerks X copy. I was amazed by how well the movie held up, when I was expected to be unimpressed. Minus the usage of the F word, (not the one that rhymes with duck) Clerks works since it was indeed a different time. The consumer cameras were too low of quality to qualify for a feature film to be submittable to a film festival. So Smith had to make the extra effort to buy stocks of 16mm film prints. The film couldn’t be cut on a computer, so everything had to be spliced physically by hand. The amount of love put into a literally handmade product radiates on screen.
With digital filmmaking being accessible to virtually everyone, Clerks III stylistically doesn’t have the sense of achievement the original does. During one point of the movie, Silent Bob unmutes himself, explaining why he’s shooting the film in black and white. The rationale in Bob’s reasoning is fair. The colors of the store plus everyone’s clothes would look off in color print. However, why would shooting in black and white matter if you’re filming on digital? Just take the color out in post. Returning to black and white, Kevin Smith strives for a past that doesn’t exist anymore. When I saw the old Quick Stop in black and white, I immediately felt like a teenager again. But I know I’m happy to have moved on from that age.
Nostalgia is powerful tool. One where we can be stuck at one place in time in terms of taste and maturity. But when do we stop looking to the past and see the future? Clerks III dies with the past which is so sad because this movie didn’t have to be made today! To be less dramatic, it could have taken a funnier, fresher direction than it did.