The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, August 03, 2006


Full review behind the jump

Clerks II
: Kevin Smith
Writer: Kevin Smith
Producers: Scott Mosier, Kevin Smith
Stars: Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Rosario Dawson, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, Trevor Fehrman, Jennifer Schwalbach

It’s a rut,” filmmaker Kevin Smith is saying in Clerks II, “but it’s my rut”. Whether you view this sequel to his breakthrough 1994 independent film as ultimately despairing and pathetic or satisfied and optimistic may depend on what stage of life you’re in. For his part Smith determines to present both sides of the issue, making a comedy that argues that we find our way to the life we want no matter how it looks to outsiders. It rises to his own comfortably lowered expectations along the way – it’s not a great movie, but you know what you’re in for by now, and if you feel about that like you do about a friend of long standing, you’ll enjoy yourself enough.

The door to the back alley of Mooby’s Fast Food Restaurant has a sign on it reading “No Exit”. The minimum wage plight of Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randall (Jeff Anderson) has always had a whiff of the existential to it – they are smart and educated people in a world that doesn’t need them to be, and so they must fill the void of their days with pop culture trivia and vulgar distractions. For over a decade their home for this was the Quick Stop convenience store where Dante worked – now it’s burned down, so they’ve made the lateral career move to Mooby’s.

Dante is perpetually unsatisfied, convinced he should be bettering himself but without any idea how one goes about that. Randall has no ambition in the traditional capitalistic sense of the word and thinks Dante doesn’t need bettering. The visual shock of seeing the young men from Clerks with baggy, pocked skin and no wage hike is the movie’s first challenge to us – why aren’t they further along? And why should it upset us that they aren’t?

Between these two and the ever-adventuring pot dealers Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith himself, respectively), newly converted to Jesus but otherwise back in their proper home propped up against the wall with their boom box, Smith has a clear passion for the concept of the best friend as “hetero life-mate”. But if you don’t feel comfortable with that, he provides you all the insinuating jokes about repressed homosexuality that you need. He’s full-service that way, and his embrace of all things reproductive, scatological and racially-insensitive as conversational fodder, when it works, has a way of reflecting back a certain harmless playfulness. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words, and the overqualified burger-flippers using them, cannot truly hurt us.

Smith the filmmaker prefers the company of friends to professionals, and from the acting to the production values the results feel slapped-together in a way that’s sometimes appealing. Once again we experience a long day in the world of customer service, which once again Dante is plotting to escape. He’s all set to leave the Garden State for the warmer climes of Florida, where he will marry his beloved Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach), whose parents will then give him a house and a car wash to manage. This would seem to meet every definition of what he’s claimed to want all these years, and yet the restlessness persists. Does he want the girl who’s so ready to dismiss the life he’s lead and the people that populate it? Does he secretly prefer Mooby’s spunky manager Becky (Rosario Dawson), who relates to him as a buddy should but also has breasts?

Smith either can’t or doesn’t feel like wiping the mold off that old plot, and it shuffles along without many surprises or real pleasures, save one that begins on a rooftop with a Jackson 5 song. More interesting is studying the tragic effect Dante’s pending departure has on Randall. He’s got a fresh young whipping boy in Lord of the Rings devotee Elias (a very funny Trevor Fehrman), who, when pressed, probably couldn’t decide who he loves more, Jesus or The Transformers. Randall tortures the little dweeb but, almost despite himself, admits that with Dante gone, Elias is fated to be his new best friend, which is potentially worse than whipping boy.

Cross-generational arguments about whether Rings or Star Wars is the “true trilogy” are the kind of Main Event geek brawls you want to see Smith’s characters engaging in, but after a few shots fired across the bow the movie never seems able to relax and develop them to the obsessively microscopic extremes of before. It keeps yearning to be about something, to convince us that the small and quiet lives of these men who are not as young as they used to be are important and worthy of our emotional engagement. You expect that from John Irving, from Kevin Smith you question whether he’s actually worked hard enough to earn it.

He’s great at diversions, at tangents, at making wasted time into good time. There’s Randall’s one-man attempt to mainstream a racial slur, and Jay’s devotion to an infamous scene from Silence of the Lambs, and the performance of Zak Knutson as a character who calls himself “Sexy Stud”, which deserves some kind of award that should only be given once and never spoken of again. Kevin Smith appears, after the hysterics of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and the poorly-received attempt to leave the slackers behind with Jersey Girl, to accept those talents for what they are. Clerks II, at its best, is the most easy and natural expression of his voice, the most Kevin Smith-y Kevin Smith movie we’ve had in awhile. It’s the Portrait of the Artist as a Happily Immature Man. But it’s made the commitment he, with those limp and lingering efforts at a plot, can’t quite make yet.


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