From the moment it was announced that filmmaker Kevin Smith was making a sequel to his 1994 breakout indie hit Clerks, I was convinced it was a bad idea. Shot in grainy black and white with a cast of unknowns for a budget of about $28,000, Clerks defied the conventions of the film industry, and even within the context of independent film, it didn't completely fit in. Detailing a day in the life of Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson), two directionless retail clerks, the film was more than rough around the edges, it was downright jagged, with a flagrant and shockingly profane disregard for good taste. But for all the reasons Clerks should not have worked, it was hilarious, with an exaggerated sense of honesty that spoke to twentysomething Gen-Xers just starting on the road to adulthood. The insecure Dante and the foul-mouthed Randal became heroes of the slacker generation.
"They are a vice, that secret little vice of so wanting to be able to do or say the things that come to them with no type of restriction," said O'Halloran, explaining the continued appeal of Dante and Randal to me over drinks at Jake's Grill. He and Anderson were in town last month to promote Clerks II.
In a city like Portland, where the official motto should be "Familiarity Breeds Content," Clerks II could be a big hit. Like The Puffy Chair, which enjoyed its most successful run in any city in Portland, Clerks II is a film that all the day-job rockstars and aging, yet-to-be-discovered creative geniuses can relate to. But that doesn't mean the film was the best idea.
The post-Clerks career of Smith has ranged from good-but-flawed films like Chasing Amy to failures like Mallrats. But the one thing all his films have had in common is that they've given the sense that Smith has not grown much as a filmmaker beyond the sex-obsessed, geeky Star Wars kid he was 12 years ago. Which is part of the reason Clerks II seemed like such a bad idea. Not only did the film not need a sequel, the last thing any director needs to do is retreat into the comfort of past glories. Even Anderson was not convinced the sequel was a good idea.
"Mine was not a positive response," Anderson says. "I didn't want to do it. I was wondering what Kevin's motives and intentions were. Like, are you just kinda going back to something because of Jersey Girl?"
Despite the fact Anderson liked the script, he was not convinced it would work. He grudgingly came on board because he "was the only person at that point who was holding out. I knew it would kind of live or die with me, and I didn't want that responsibility."
As Clerks II opens with a scene reminiscent of the first film, Dante arrives early one morning to open the Quick Stop, where he has worked for over a decade, only to discover the convenience store engulfed in flames. In those few brief moments, Smith pulls off the wisest and most creative move of his career. With Dante and Randal staring in disbelief at the charred ruins of the Quick Stop, Smith is telling the audience that he has burned the bridge to the past. If nothing else, he is promising that Clerks II will not be the Further Adventures of Dante and Randal at the Quick Stop. And if that were all Smith managed to pull off, the film would at least earn points for trying.
With the Quick Stop gone, Dante and Randal move on to jobs at fast-food restaurant Mooby's. For Randal, Mooby's is just another place to bide time and pontificate on how Return of the Jedi is better than Return of the King until his inevitable death. For Dante, the job is just temporary; he plans to move to Florida with his fiancée (where another dead-end job awaits). On the surface, much of what goes on at Mooby's is the same as what went on at Quick Stop: Randal still doesn't care about a thing; Dante worries about everything; and Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith himself), fresh out of rehab, continue to deal weed. But it is now 12 years later, and where the clerks were once grappling with the prospect of their lives being wasted at a crappy job, they are now dealing with the fact that their lives have been, in fact, wasted at crappy jobs.
Despite his best efforts, Smith has proven that as a filmmaker he's at his best when farting in the shallow end of the pool. And rather than venturing into the deep end and risk drowning, as he did in the single-dad-raising-his-daughter-alone misfire Jersey Girl, with Clerks II he sticks with what he does best. Surprisingly, the film works, and, in its own way, shows that Smith has matured in a way that all his other films were never able to convey. "I wasn't wholly convinced. After I saw the screening, I gave a big sigh," says Anderson.
Dante and Randal are like old friends you no longer spend time with, but often wonder what they've done with their lives. Watching Clerks II, you quickly get the feeling that you've really missed these guys, and suddenly the notion of a sequel is a good idea—you want to know what's been going on with them. Dante and Randal are no longer just our heroes; they have become our friends. And if there was ever anyone you'd want to watch a Tijuana donkey show with, it would be them.