I was 15 years old when I first met Dante and Randall. I rented Clerks on VHS and liked it so much I pirated myself a copy. The illegal dub sat proudly on my shelf until about 2001 or so, when I bought it on DVD. I’ve never considered myself to be a Kevin Smith fan, particularly. He’s definitely got some talent, and he seems like he’d be a cool guy to hang out with, but that doesn’t change the fact that Mallrats and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back were really shitty movies. I like Kevin Smith, and he’s done enough good work (Chasing Amy and Dogma, besides Clerks) that I’m always at least interested in what he’s doing next, but I don’t worship at the altar like a lot of guys on the ‘net have been doing for something like ten years now.
has always enjoyed a soft spot with me. It was one of the first independent films I really got to know. It showed me that regular people could have something to say in film, that it didn’t take a major corporate studio and millions of dollars to make something worth seeing, and that was inspiring. Not only that, but Dante and Randall were just such likable guys. They were jerks, sure -- Randall was a non-stop, often caustic smartass, and Dante was so indecisive about what he wanted out of life that by the end of the movie he had hurt and alienated both
of the girls he loved, and still couldn’t quite make up his mind which one he wanted to be with -- but they were familiar. Maybe it was that they were played by non-professional actors, maybe it was the low budget and the crude black and white photography, maybe it was the fact that they worked at a convenience store and made shit money -- whatever it was, they seemed authentic. They were real people, and I felt like I knew them, and I cared about what happened to them.
When they showed up briefly at the beginning of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, I lit up like a kid at Christmas. To see these characters again after so many years was joy. Even if I had hated Clerks II, I would have at least been happy to see Dante and Randall again. I feel attached to them as I do to few other film characters. I should go ahead and say at this point that I didn’t hate Clerks II. I liked it a lot. I sat watching in the theater, getting reacquainted with Dante and Randall, laughing, feeling my old attachment strengthen as the film went on.
If Clerks is about stagnation, then Clerks II is all about change. The Quick Stop convenience store where Dante and Randall work, the center of the universe, burns down before the opening credits. The story then picks up a year or so later, with the guys working behind the counter at Mooby’s, the sort of nightmare corporate fast food joint that would result if Disney merged with McDonalds. It is Dante’s last day. Tomorrow, he will leave New Jersey and move to Florida with Emma, his fiancé, to marry her and operate a car wash for her father. Randall faces the prospect of being left without his best friend, with only awkward, introverted co-worker Elias to hang out with. Elias has three loves in his life: the Transformers, the Lord of the Rings, and Jesus. There’s also Becky, the manager at Mooby’s, whose relationship with Dante threatens to throw a wrench in the whole “moving to Florida” plan.
I liked the way we are sort of dropped into the middle of all this. The film takes place during Dante’s last day at Mooby’s, and there is no time wasted in explaining who everyone is or how things got to this point. Everything we need to know, we learn in due course. So many films waste so much time with exposition and explicitly defining situations that it’s gratifying to see Kevin Smith believe enough in his story to just get on with it, and respect his audience enough to trust that we’ll get it.
The movie is rated R, and a lot was written about its raunchiness even before it was released. The original Clerks, of course, was the first film ever to be tagged with an NC-17 rating (later appealed to an R) solely on the basis of language. The dialogue in Clerks II is just as alive with profanity and able to give offense to the prudish as in the original, and it is in this area especially that the film really benefits from being a sequel. Dante and Randall were established previously in Clerks. We know how they talk, we know how they think, so when subjects come up such as oral/anal sexual contact, or whether or not “porch monkey” is a racial slur, they just seem like the sort of things that would come up in the normal course of conversation with these guys, rather than gratuitous. I love how convicted Dante sounds as he pleads with Randall, “You never go ass to mouth!” As is always the case in Kevin Smith movies, the biggest laughs here come from the dialogue, most notably the aforementioned “porch monkey” exchange, and Randall’s overtly sexual suggestion for a new ending to the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The raunch doesn’t make the movie, though. Credit for that goes to the heart. The film is more than merely an excuse for yet another serving of dick jokes and pop culture references; there is a story to be told, and it winds up being a pretty affecting one. At its center is the friendship of Dante and Randall, and how Dante’s impending departure threatens to end it. This seems to bother Randall a lot more than Dante, though Dante’s feelings for Becky give him second thoughts about relocating to Florida and marrying the well-meaning but overbearing Emma. One of the best scenes is a musical montage (usually the bane of my existence) that shows us Dante after an argument with Becky, as he drives around town looking for her, and Randall looking pensive as he prepares a surprise going away present for Dante back at Mooby’s.
The cast does a great job, especially Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson as Dante and Randall. They don’t just spend an hour and a half trading quips and insults; they really have to act here. There are scenes for both of them, dramatic and comedic, that depend not on their words but on their faces, and they both rise to the occasion and give excellent performances. Also especially notable is Trevor Fehrman as Tolkien-loving Jesus freak Elias. Fehrman is great because he never renders Elias as a cartoon, never seems to be making fun of him, but plays him a person -- a sheltered, fucked-up, creepy person. I also have to mention Jason Mewes, who returns as Jay alongside Kevin Smith’s Silent Bob. Mewes’s progress from his debut in Clerks 12 years ago to his performance in Clerks II is astonishing. He has gotten better in each film, and grown from a mumbling amateur to a confident and very funny comic actor. His big scene here is a re-enactment of Buffalo Bill’s “Goodbye, Horses” dance from The Silence of the Lambs, and it’s pretty goddamn funny.
The whole movie is pretty goddamn funny. But the funny only takes it so far. What really makes this a good film, and worth seeing, is the interest Kevin Smith shows in his characters. There’s honesty here, and vulnerability, and sincerity, qualities which most gross-out comedies forsake in favor of scatology and schmaltz. At the end, I cared about what became of Dante and Randall. I worried about their friendship, and I missed the Quick Stop. When the final shot came, and the camera tracked backwards as the color dissolved to grainy black and white, all seemed right with the world.