Clerks II (2006): Kevin Smith’s Disappointing Sequel

What was charming, raunchy, and scabrous in Kevin Smith’s black-and-white debut “Clerks,” has become less charming, less raunchy, and less scabrous in his (unnecessary) color sequel “Clerks II,” 12 years later.

What was amateurish yet exciting for a $27,500 budget flick, when it premiered (out of nowhere) at the Sundance Festival, is now a bloated, overextended production that can barely fill its 97-minute frame with contents. Smith himself has said that the premiere party for “Clerk II” cost more money than the whole first film.

What was funny about the perpetually horny twentysomething protagonists, Dante and Randal, endlessly talking about sex in an endless barrage of four-letter words, has become rather sad 12 years later, when the protags are in their mid-30s, clearly refusingor unableto grow up, stuck in a perpetual adolescent mode.

Like John Waters, Smith has never been a good craftsman, and also like Waters, he doesn’t show much improvement in the technical departments. Perhaps Smith doesn’t care, as he certainly works with big enough budgets to make more visually pleasing pictures. In other words, “Clerks II,” like all of Smith’s films, is about dialogue and nothing elsethere’s no mise-en-scene, framing, not even good acting to speak of.

Problem is, the personal encounters, verbal exchanges, and sexual obscenities in “Clerks II” lack freshness and poignancy, and they evoke a strange feeling of being out-of-place and out-of-date. I can’t be nostalgic about the 1994 “Clerks,” which even then was not a good movie, but at least one in tune with Smith’s personal life and the zeitgeist. Now it feels as if Smith is desperate, with no new ideas for movies.

One of the few good decisions in this sequel is to include all the usual suspects from the previous movies, such as Jay and Silent Bob. And mid-way, Jason Lee and Ben Affleck (who were so good in Smith’s “Chasing Amy”) make a much welcome appearance. (See below).

Its not that Dante and Randall have disappeared completely from our lives for a decade. They have been featured in a comic book, a short-lived animated TV series, and also had cameos in “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” (arguably Smith’s worst film).

A brief prologue establishes quickly the Quick Stop supermarket and the black-and-white look of the 1994 film. The provincial yet proud New Jersey residents Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) are still working at the supermarket and the video store, that is, until a nasty fire destroys the place, putting them out of work. Lacking any skills or marketable qualifications, the geeks gripe about their lot in life and banter about pop culture (what else)

A year later, the hapless heroes move into the Technicolor Mooby’s joint. Behind the counter of this burger joint (where menu items are prefaced with words like “udderly delicious”), the low-key Dante and the motor mouth foul-mouthed Randal continue their routines of doing nothing.

Things change a bit, but only a bit, when their manager Becky Scott (Rosario Dawson) arrives, since they occasionally and dutifully have to report to her. We quickly observe the ongoing attraction between Becky and Dante, who had sex just once (but won’t mind to do it again, or at least reminisce about it). Their rapport continues, when back in her office, Becky places her feet on Dante’s lap and he paints her toenails, a relaxed, semi-erotic action that’s continuously interrupted by Randal.

Obstacles to the romantic flirtation and further plot complications are represented by Dante’s fiance Emma, a feisty and harsh control-freak (played unappealing by Smith’s real-life wife, Jennifer Schwalbach Smith), their impending marriage, and plan to move out of Jersey and begin a new life in Florida. Just as foul-mouthed as the boys, Emma manages to surprise everyone, including Dante, when she pulls out invitations to their wedding, which is not to take place for another three months!

Middle age has not been kind to Smith, who has shown soft sentimentality in several of his pictures after “Dogma.” But dialogue-wise, the writing in “Clerks II” is better and sharper, an almost return to form. Predictably, most of the gags, quips, and monologues are sex-related, dealing with the familiar repertoire of masturbation, anal-oral contact (“you can’t go ass-to-mouth”), sex with pickles, and even bestiality.

Allusions to pop culture phenomena, such as the difference between Anne Frank and Helen Keller, and particularly “Lord of the Rings,” are really funny, showing Smith’s forte as a satirist. To create further tension, Smith has brought a novice employee Elias (Trevor Fehrman), who engages in a heated debate with Randall about the merits of “Star Wars” vs. “Lord of the Rings.” Randal reduces the Jackson’s Oscar-winning epic to “three movies about walking,” which he then hilariously demonstrates.

Other highlights include an impromptu dance number out of “The Blues Brothers.” However, a tribute to a “Bachelor Party sequence tries too hard to be shocking, and overstays its welcome, as does a soulful discourse about love between Dante and Becky in her office.

What’s terribly missing in this picture is an eccentric aggregate of customers, like the guy who collapsed dead in the bathroom in “Clerks.” There’s nothing here like the priceless monologue delivered by Dante’s girlfriend in the 1994 picture about giving “37 blow jobs.”

Instead, what we get, are cameos from Ben Affleck (who was in some of Smith’s worst pictures) and Jason Lee, as well as a loud and irritating appearance from the otherwise reliable Wanda Sykes (“Monster-in-Law”). The drug-dealing, wall-leaning Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) are also back, as background material, literally.

One can understand Smith’s decision to shoot the new picture in color, though I found myself missing the grungy monochrome of the first “Clerks,” in which there was congruency between theme, style and tone. The last scene of “Clerks II” briefly reverts back to black-and-white, thus linking more directly the aesthetics of the two flicks. For better or worse (I think the latter), Smith’s pacing has slowed down considerably and his tone has softened, too.

Most of the actors, Rosario Dawson included, deliver their lines in a stiff and stilted manner. The thespians have been (mis) directed by Smith to recite their lines with no emotion or conviction. As written and played, best part belongs to Anderson, the ultimate cynic-acidic guy, who’s particularly touching in a last reel speech that’s surprisingly heartfelt. The film’s ending, in which the duos of misfits play the role of last-minute saviors, brings a nice, satisfying note.

When “Jay and Silent Bob” came out, Smith said that it was the final chapter of his saga stretching back to the first “Clerks.” But after “Jersey Girl,” he must have changed his mind: Smith includes an amusing postscript to the failure of that film in the end credits of “Clerks II.”

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