Go figure. Judge Bill Gibron never gave Kevin Smith's films the time of day previously. Now he's declaring his Clerks sequel one of the best films of 2006.
I'm disgusted and repulsed…and I can't look away.
How does a novice approach the Kevin Smith oeuvre? How do film fans unfamiliar with the entire View Askew universe and its inside joke-laden logistics actually wedge their way into what many consider to be a post-modern microcosm of a jaundiced Generation X. As a moviemaker, Smith has not made it easy. From his first film, Clerks, to his latest release, a 10-years-in-the-making sequel, he has relied on a certain cinematic style and quirky conversational approach that has made him a god amongst non-conformists and a role model for anyone hoping to break into the business. But this has also left Smith isolated and underappreciated, supported almost solely by a fan base wired to the Web and feasting on the insider elixir of his self-contained world. It's a shame, really, when you consider what the man has to offer. Take the recent Clerks II, for example. To the average individual who has seen Smith interviewed on various television chat fests, this retread of material he supposedly mastered a few years back seems simple enough to decipher. Aficionados would and should queue up with rabid fascination for the further adventures of Dante and Randall. All others simply stay away, right? Wrong! By doing so, they'd miss one of 2006's best films. As a matter of fact, Clerks II is the perfect in for someone outside the Smith cosmos. This critic should know. He once was such a View-Askew virgin.
Facts of the Case
After a freak fire at the Quick Stop puts Dante (Brian O'Halloran, Vulgar) and Randall (Jeff Anderson, Now You Know) out of a job, it's not long before the two are back on their feet, working at the local fast-food franchise, Mooby's. Even Jay (Jason Mewes, Dogma) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith, Southland Tales), the loitering dope dealers who were a constant presence outside the Stop have taken up residence at the hamburger haven. One year later, Dante is about to leave for Florida. He is marrying a possessive woman named Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach, Jersey Girl) and she has her future husband's life all planned out for him. They'll move in with mother until the wedding, then take up residence in a house her parents will buy them. Then Daddy will give Dante one of his car washes to run. How convenient. Of course, Randall thinks this is a crock, and reminds Dante of the fact every few minutes—that is, when he's not tormenting teenage employee Elias (Trevor Fehrman, Now You Know). All of this makes manager Becky (Rosario Dawson, Sin City) rather angry. She hates the fact that two near-middle-aged slackers seem to constantly undermine her position as boss. Besides, she's got an unspoken thing for Dante as well. When Randall recruits some questionable entertainment for his buddy's bon voyage, the fallout makes everyone reconsider the last ten years. Maybe it's time to break out of the sedentary service industry. After all, there is more to life than being Clerks…maybe.
In a summer which saw its far share of artistic atrophy, which argued against the viability of classic comic-book characters as bona fide blockbuster material and fresh-faced filmmakers as possible motion-picture messiahs, one film stood hilariously head and shoulders above all others—and it had nothing to do with a fake Kazakhstan journalist using ambush tactics to create his humor. No, in a field of flops, in a domain strewn with subpar Tinseltown tripe, Clerks II proved that movies could be profane and prophetic, wonderfully entertaining and emotionally insightful at the same time. Many die-hard Smith heads felt that their genial leader, the Silent Bob aspect of the "Jay and …" cinematic duo, was out of his good-natured gourd going back to the scene of his initial indie triumph. Like that old wheezy windbag Thomas Wolfe once said, you can't go home again. But Smith seemed intent on revisiting his fascinating first film and—horror of horrors—bringing the characters up to current, post-millennial date. It was an idea so lamentable (or lazy, according to some) that even the original actors seemed suspicious. Then Smith does what he does best—he pulled an amazingly deep script right out of his ample ass and flattened the rest of the sunny-day season with his creative comic meditation on maturity.
Indeed, Clerks II is not just creatively used curse words illustrating elusive points of pop culture importance. There is much more to this stellar masterwork than arguments over the Transformers vs. their K-Mart equivalent. What Kevin Smith has done is that true cinematic rarity—he's stepped back from his signature effort and found a way to reinvest it with motion picture import. He could have taken the easy way out. He could have made this another installment in the adventures of Randall and Dante—a big-screen, live-action installment of the Clerks cartoon series, so to speak—and been done with it. He could have milked the premise for everything his fan base demands and never once worried about growing as a filmmaker. But a funny thing happened on the way to this remake—a very witty and clever thing. Smith decided to do away with the original setting, instead having his drifting post-30 slackers stuck in the nowhere universe of fast food. This inspired premise allows the interaction between the characters to be more desperate, to paint their predicament in much broader, more meaningful strokes. Then Smith goes the extra mile, offering up a trilogy of outsiders who allow the storyline to comment and critique on everything we see. Between Elias's downward-spiraling dork in training, Becky's belligerent belief in self and Emma's corrosion of conformity, our heroes are hemmed in on all sides.
This creates a stunning amount of emotional melancholia, Clerks II is poignant, in part, because ten actual years have passed since the arrogant radicalism of the original. When Smith made his first film, it was a gloriously irreverent lark, a set of stunning (and stunted) conversations searching for a movie. The plotting was minimal so that all the concentration could center on the characters. Equally important, Smith showed that real people speak in a language peppered with borrowed riffs, four-letter letdowns, and entertainment-based inspirations. While some could argue that he single-handedly invented the by now overdone self-serving irony-laced comedy, there is really much more to Smith's motivation. For this almost middle-aged auteur, the world is filled with commercialized cliques, groups who worship comics, Star Wars, movies, and music. Together, they band together to take on the other competing factions, waging a war of words that helps prove—or deflate—their own sense of self. By using esteem as the focal point for all his discussions and diatribes, Smith offers unusually clear insight into the human condition. Where filmmakers like Mike Nichols defined the generation of the '60s and John Hughes sanitized the situation of the '80s, Kevin Smith stands as the definitive '90s voice.
That's why, in part, Clerks II is so shocking. You don't expect a man more closely associated with grunge and the rise of the Internet to make a stirring personal piece on living one's life outside the mandates of normal society. Actually, that may be how many people see Smith. In fact, he is one director who sees society as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it has to be obeyed, less it chew you up and spit you out like a wad of worn-out gum. But it's also true that conventionality kills the best parts of you, destroying individuality and the full blossom of personality. For this sequel, Smith actually attacks this subject head-on, using his overtly intelligent dialogue to dig beneath the surface of so-called normalcy to show how strange and surreal it can all be. While this all seems really deep and depressing, it's actually one of the building blocks for Smith's humor. By making people confront the issues that make them adamant, by pushing fandom to the forefront and deconstructing its easily ignored peculiarities (Star Wars vs. Lord of the Rings, family reminiscences vs. overt racism), Smith keeps everything individualized and direct. You may not understand every reference being bandied about, but you surely recognize your own personal proclivity or peculiarity in the way the characters interact.
Even better, Smith taps into the universal memory maker known as music to deliver montages (and even a full-blown dance number) to remind us of the release, and the realities, of life's surrounding soundtrack. When Dante goes after Becky, the director places The Smashing Pumpkins' amazing "1979" in the background, letting Billy Corgan's wistful lyrics about misspent youth lost paint the picture. The resonance of both the filmmaking and the sonic backdrop are just sensational. Even better, Becky tries to teach Dante to dance in preparation for his big betrothed day. As the Jackson 5's sensationally celebratory "ABC" blasts out of Silent Bob's boombox, Mooby's suddenly becomes a stage for everyone to rejoice in the all-out spirit of life. Sure, it may seem cheesy and sort of fuddy-duddy-ish to take a 30-plus-year-old track and accent it with some "Thriller"-style choreography, but the more important moment is Dante's response to Becky's moves. Rosario Dawson, who seems to exude sex appeal from every pore, does a few sly solo moves, and as Smith pulls in on actor Brian O'Halloran's face, we instantly recognize the significance of the moment. In essence, Smith is arguing for the simplification of life—a simple melody, a simple workday afternoon, a simple physical exchange between two smitten friends. It's the main message of Clerks II, a lesson this director hopes we all learn.
Indeed, by going back to his roots, Smith has rediscovered his muse. He avoids all the studio sniping and Hollywood headaches that have come from his most recent efforts, and instead, rediscovers the pure joy of conversation and people interacting. There are none of the obvious attempts at humor like in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and no unearned pathos as in his Jennifer Lopez/Ben Affleck misstep Jersey Girl. Even if you have no real investment in the View Askew universe, Smith gets us to feel for his characters, putting us directly in the shoes of each individual as they face their own personal crisis (Dante's impending move, Randall's loss of his best friend, Becky's desire for Dante, etc.). By adding Elias, Emma, and Becky, the new members of the Clerks universe, to the mix, Smith adds something that some of his films have missed—perspective. He brings a consistent outside voice to what has typically been an insular, self-sustaining world. It elevates the entire film from a mere trip "back to the well" into one of the most keenly aware looks at maturity ever helmed. Within a comfortable, familiar format, Smith has found the next phase in his amiable outsider career. Clerks II is not only one of the director's most accomplished works, it is one of 2006's most delightful discoveries. It is also one of the best films of the year.
In true devotee fashion, Smith understands implicitly why people gravitate toward DVD—and it's not for the stellar sound and vision. Granted, this disc does look great, the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image appearing clear and colorful. We learn later that Smith did some inventive post-production work, ala O Brother Where Art Thou?, desaturating the Mooby's décor and matching some of the grain present in the original Clerks. It gives the movie a distinct look, which is something coming from a filmmaker not know for his visual acumen. Sonically, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is excellent, presenting a great deal of spatial ambience in the aural elements. We get the feeling of being in a fast-food restaurant, and all the conversations are captured in true crystal clarity.
But the real reason fans gravitate toward Smith's DVDs is his attention to added-content detail. Luckily, this multi-faceted release does not disappoint. Along with the feature film, there are three commentaries on the first disc, an introduction by Smith (with producer/pal Scott Moseir), a collection of deleted scenes, and a mini-featurette on "interspecies erotica." The first narrative track features Smith, Moseir, and Director of Photography David Klein. Subtitled "the technical" commentary, this is a hands-on look at how Clerks II was made. If you're looking for gossip about the cast or more profanity-laced humor, you should move on to the other discussions offered. Smith and his crew go into a lot of detail over film-stock selection, indie vs. Hollywood cinematography, and the use of CGI and other effect elements in the movie.
It's the second track, entitled the "actors" commentary that will satisfy that scatological itch. Though Rosario Dawson is sadly absent, we do get a chance to hear from Smith and Mosier again, along with actors Jeff Anderson, Trevor Fehrman, Jason Mewes, Brian O'Halloran, and Jennifer Schwalbach. As one expects, it's a riot—especially when the subject of Jennifer's relationship to the director is discussed (she is Mrs. Smith in real life). The final track, entitled "podcast," was an experiment that never panned out. Supposedly, it was going to be offered as part of a download deal, giving theatergoers a chance to listen to a commentary during the film's initial release. Featuring Smith, Mosier, and Anderson, it's a hilarious dissection of the entire Clerks II concept.
As for the deleted scenes, there are no real gems missing from the movie. Most of the material is mentioned by Smith in the technical commentary track, and while it's intriguing to finally get to see most of it (including additional conversations between Randall and Dante), this material doesn't feel essential to the final film. Similarly, the donkey show segment with actor Zak Knutson has some interesting backstage footage, but the conversation is really very satiric, and doesn't address the actual issues involved with such a sequence. Disc Two is where you will find even meatier context. There is a hilarious blooper reel, along with a collection of "10 Train Wrecks" (read: video production diaries). Both provide humorous insight into the entire Clerks conceit. Similarly, the 90-minute documentary, entitled "Back to the Well," deconstructs the Smith universe and explains why now, 10 years later, the director is drawing on his original material to make a new movie. It's a surprisingly emotional take, considering how far (and in some ways, how sadly close) Smith has moved in regard to his overall ideals. With lots of backstage banter and detailed information, the bonus features here argue for DVD as a perfect preservationist medium.
Even if the very thought of seeing a Kevin Smith film turns your stomach into a raging ravine of acidic spite, motion-picture prejudices poised for maximum irony deflection, Clerks II will change your obviously misguided opinion. If you enjoy the fine art of conversation (even in all its crude, rude, and "hey, dude" dimensions), if witty rejoinders masterfully manipulated and managed gives your sensibilities a stiffee, if you feel like George Lucas gets a bum rap, Peter Jackson is an overly praised Southern Hemisphere dweller, and a certain sexual practice involving the rump needs rejoicing, Smith will happily provide the foundational fodder. But there is so much more to his moviemaking mannerisms than clever comic coarseness. Smith is finally maturing into the modern voice of a disaffected generation, a label he earned rather haphazardly a decade before. Clerks II takes a stand against the notion that personal happiness is a hindrance to social advancement, as if the two concepts were so mutually exclusive that they could never live happily in the same sentiment. As his own career has proved, one can stay true to his talents and still become bigger than his own individual ideology. Clerks II should be the movie that makes Kevin Smith more than just a known name in certain households. It's a wonderful work of jokey genius.
Not f*cking guilty! Kevin Smith deserves as much praise as this court can muster for delivering this merry masterpiece.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Commentary by Director Kevin Smith, Producer Scott Mosier, and Director of Photography David Klein
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