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Clerks II: Amusing Shit

July 26, 2006

Kevin Smith is a terrible filmmaker. He’s never composed an interesting shot, he doesn’t have a clue about pacing or rhythm, his casting decisions are usually poor and he has a knack for bringing out the worst in actors. Even his supposed strength–his screenwriting–is pretty bad; he seems incapable of juggling multiple voices in a scene. The best he can do is write an occasional hilarious rant on anal sex or Star Wars, but these monologues exist in a narrative vacuum. The foil is usually reduced to a dumbfounded stare or an exasperated “Jesus!” That’s not dialogue, that’s a mediocre stand-up comedy routine.

And yet… most of his movies are pretty funny, for the same reasons that mediocre stand-up is usually funny: if you drizzle a few creative observations about pop culture among regular f-bombs and general offensiveness, you’ll get people to laugh. When the first Clerks came out, this formula was almost a revelation; we’d never before heard movie characters make moral philosophy out of the destruction of the Death Star. But four Quentin Tarantino movies and countless Josh Whedon and Kevin Williamson shows later, media-immersed humor has nearly reached its sell-by date. So what’s Smith’s solution in Clerks II? Ramp down the superhero-inspired soliloquies and ramp up the gross-out humor.

Clerks II begins where Clerks left–and started–off: at the Quick Stop. Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran), who’s now been working there the wrong side of a decade, arrives to open the store and finds it engulfed in flames. Turns out Randall Graves (Jeff Anderson) left the coffeemaker on.

When the action resumes a year later, Dante and Randall are working at Mooby’s, a run-down fast food joint with decor seemingly borrowed from the Garden State Parkway’s Vince Lombardi rest stop. Dante is engaged to a tall, thin, slightly crazed blonde (Jennifer Schwalbach Smith, Kevin’s wife) and is a day away from leaving MooJobs–and New Jersey–forever to move to Florida to run one of his fiancé’s father’s carwashes. Once you see Dante flirting with his much younger, much hotter, much sweeter boss (Rosario Dawson), you’ll know where the rest of this is going.

But the plot’s obviously not the selling point, it’s the talk. The star, as always, is Randall, the gum-chewing gutter poet of caustic nihilism. The straight man is Dante, and O’Halloran has somehow become an even less convincing actor over the last 12 years. Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) are back and while Silent Bob’s shtick–he doesn’t talk, get it?–is no longer funny, Mewes’ crazed horny stoner act is as engrossing as ever. He reenacts the Buffalo Bill “Will you fuck me? I’d fuck me.” scene from The Silence of the Lambs in successive stages of repulsive hilarity.

Perhaps because the bar is set so low by O’Halloran, the additions to the cast provide some of the most interesting, and funny, moments. Maybe because they’re, you know, professional actors. Trevor Fehrman is great as Elias, a squirmy Jesus- and LOTR-loving 19-year-old who gets dropped off at Mooby’s each day by his parents… only to endure relentless verbal abuse from Randall. And Rosario Dawson does everything she can with an impossible task: convince us that someone as fun and beautiful as her would fall for someone as boring and homely as Dante. She doesn’t quite pull it off, but I don’t blame her; O’Halloran’s not only a charmless actor, he’s playing a sheepish wet blanket of a character.

Like a mediocre stand-up act, there are some genuinely creative bits. When Randall asks Elias if he’s a virgin, he hems and haws, and then stutters that he wouldn’t be if it weren’t for Pillow Pants. Pillow Pants, he explains, is the troll that lives in his girlfriend’s vagina. He will be peed out when she turns 21. “Have you even kissed her?” Randall asks, gums smacking. Elias explains that he would have, if it weren’t for Listeraid. Listeraid is the troll that lives in her mouth.

But the biggest laughs come from the most offensive bits, like Randall’s campaign to reclaim “porch monkey” as a race-neutral insult. When an offended customer refuses free food after hearing Randall talk about porch monkeys, her husband pleads with her to take the food: “You can’t taste racism, baby!” The climax, which involves a visit from a traveling donkey show, Elias jerking off and Dante getting kicked in the balls, is hilarious, but those are ingredients that Merchant and Ivory couldn’t fuck up.

While the plot is threadbare, it’s not thin enough. One of the virtues of the original Clerks was that Smith never played the character’s pointlessness for pathos. But this Clerks is chock full of romantic confessions and emotional confrontations. Every time a character goes for an emotion deeper than ironic detachment, the dialogue sinks to Lifetime-level cliché. There’s a particularly painful, and poorly paced, scene near the end, when Randall reveals his loneliness and pleads for Dante to stay in New Jersey. “I love you,” he says, as Jay and Silent Bob cover their ears. I only wish I had done the same.

There’s certainly a place for a movie that revels in its own offensiveness. But the original Clerks did much the same thing, only sharper and without the sentimentality. And it’s telling: last summer Judd Apatow and Steve Carrell played with some similar motifs in The 40-Year-Old Virgin–pop culture commentary, musical non sequitirs, donkey shows–and the result was not only funny, it was touching, insightful and even uplifting. I walked away from Clerks II with the feeling you must have after watching a woman blow a donkey: I laughed–sometimes hysterically–but I had a nagging sense of guilt and regret that I paid to see this crap in the first place.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. bro permalink
    July 26, 2006 7:04 pm

    this review is interesting, because it kind of indirectly ties in the narrative discussion. it seems that you most appreciated the asides and non-sequitors, and advancement of the narrative and character arcs just got in the way. Comedies are a bit of an exception to the traditional distaste for non-narrative filmmaking. for example, i’ve never had more sustained laughter watching a film then watching the jackass movie. there’s obviously no plot and no message but it has one goal and it succeeds in it. or take a film like Blazing Saddles- by the end of it, the narrative has almost completely exploded. When a film is explicitly made to elicit one particular reaction, whether it be laughter or fear, narrative sometimes just gets in the way.

    PS. this is why the first 10 minutes of a Simpsons episode are invariably the funniest. the latter half has to be devoted to plot resolution

  2. July 26, 2006 7:14 pm

    Very interesting point, which seems to agree with Sahil’s assessment of great horror movies. At the same time, a marvelously plotted comedy–like Swingers or Dr. Strangelove–derive some of its best laughs from the way that motifs repeat themselves and deepen their meaning as the narrative progresses. In much the same way Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld are all the funnier because of the way the plots double back on themselves. But I would agree that there’s a particular kind of comedy that does not require a sensible narrative and in many cases is harmed by too much plot.

    It’s also interesting you bring up the Jackass movie because Clerks II appeals to a similar sense of humor, where you laugh and are repulsed at the same time.

  3. Brad Glaser permalink
    July 27, 2006 2:19 am

    I think your assessment of Smith is harsh. His greatest weakness, his point-and-shoot style, is also in some ways a strength. In his best work (Clerks, Chasing Amy,) he is essentially making relationship comedies and his style avoids the obnoxious shots that tend to crop up in these movies. He doesn’t do things such as the classic looking-out-from-the-oven shot or back and forth POVs that are more distracting than enlightening. These kinds of shots generally have no meaning. They’re just low-rent showing-off by hack directors. I’d much prefer a Smith who lets the characters and the sets do their work. Is it filmmaking on the level of Scorcese? Of course not. But in the correct context, it works.

  4. July 28, 2006 5:19 pm

    Not sure I agree with you on this one, Brad. First off, Kevin Smith has said numerous times that he had no idea what he was doing, filmmaking-wise, when he made Clerks; and to this day, he continues to admit that he’s not very good at composing shots.

    Second, in Clerks II, he actually tries to get cute with his cinematography, and his experiment is a disaster. He shoots a confrontation between Dante and Randall by swirling a camera around them, which is intended to ratchet up the tension of the scene. It only made me feel dizzy.

    Worse, for years, he’s been using the awful device of punctuating his jokes with musical accents; that technique hasn’t been fresh since the early days of vaudeville.

    And look at how bad the acting is in most of his movies. Take Jason Lee, for example. On “My Name is Earl,” he’s not amazing, but he’s convincing; in Clerks II, he acts as if Smith was shouting at him between takes: “Less realism! More cartoony!” Here’s a list of other actors he’s coaxed terrible performances out of: Linda Fiorentino in Dogma, Chris Rock in Dogma, Ben Affleck in Mallrats, Jeremy/Jason London in Mallrats, Brian O’Halloran in anything, Kevin Smith in anything, Jason Lee in anything (except, maybe–MAYBE–Chasing Amy). That’s quite a track record.

  5. Brad Glaser permalink
    July 29, 2006 7:46 am

    My point is not that Smith is good at composing shots, but rather that the point-and-shoot style (and I’m writing mostly of his first three films here) is the lesser of two evils, when the other is getting fancy with the camera for its own sake.

    I’m not gonna say Smith is great with actors, but of the people you name, Chris Rock, London, O’Halloran and Smith himself are just not good actors. I like Jason Lee, but he’s not imbued with a ton of range from what I can tell.

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