Clerks II (R), directed by Kevin Smith, starts Friday, July 21, at area theaters.
"Please don't let this suck, please don't let this suck." I laced my fingers and bowed my head as the opening flickers of Clerks II illuminated the screen, hoping that it wasn't too late to beseech the god of cinema. The original Clerks, released in 1994, was writer/director Kevin Smith's low-budget calling card, a raunchy and achromatic day at a New Jersey convenience store that helped cement the commercial viability of independent film. Smith's subsequent efforts have been of varying merit (the dirty-sweet Chasing Amy, the yucky Jersey Girl), so the quality of Clerks II was hardly foregone.
Luckily, my 11th-hour incantation seems to have done the trick. Clerks II --- while certainly not on par with the original --- rather successfully fuses both sides of Smith: the wickedly witty teenage fanboy and the schmaltzy family man in his mid-30s. In the decade between Clerks and Clerks II, we're meant to believe that nothing had changed: eternally frazzled Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) still toiled at the Quick Stop, while irritating best friend Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) continued to man the adjacent video store. The film opens in Clerks-y black-and-white with Dante arriving at work, then gives way to color as flames claim the structure and set the plot in motion.
Flash-forward a year, where Dante and Randal are now "funployees" of fast-food chain Mooby's, and independent entrepreneurs Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) have returned to set up drug-dealing shop right outside Mooby's following a court-ordered stint in rehab. Big changes are afoot for Dante, however: he's got a pretty, albeit controlling, fiancée (Smith's wife Jennifer Schwalbach) with whom he's leaving for Florida the next day to begin a new and comfortably nepotistic life. Complicating matters is Becky (Rosario Dawson, Sin City), the manager at Mooby's who drives a lime-green vintage Mustang and has obvious chemistry with Dante. Smith parcels out information about their history in an uncharacteristically subtle way.
It's your standard scenario in which someone must decide whether to make a break for the unknown or stick with familiar evils. However, I don't recall this clichéd contrivance previously containing a rant about the etiquette of "ass-to-mouth." Yup, we're in Smith country, folks, and while the same writing that nearly got Clerks slapped with a NC-17 isn't nearly as shocking 12 years out, it's still awfully funny. Randal gets the best lines, whether he's lecturing co-worker Elias (adorably geeky newcomer Trevor Fehrman) on why his beloved Star Wars is so thoroughly superior to the Lord of the Rings trilogy ("It's three movies about people walking to a fucking volcano!") or, in the most hilarious gag, trying to reclaim a certain racist term that he had no idea people found offensive.
But it's not all bestiality and junk-tucking: Smith's Jersey Girl sentimental side once again rears its ugly head, though he seems to have found a way to harness it. Like Smith, Randal and Dante aren't 23-year-old slackers anymore; they're trying to figure out what's important and how to achieve it. The go-kart bonding montage to the tune of "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" is sappy and unnecessary. But the lock-up confrontation (don't ask) between Dante and Randal about their respective choices in life is well-written and surprisingly touching, with both Anderson and O'Halloran finally acting like actors instead of snarky line readers.
The emergence of the two stars' dramatic chops could probably be attributed to the presence of Dawson, a gifted performer who is impossible to dislike. She hit the indie scene right around the same time Clerks did in 1995's equally controversial Kids, and as Becky, her vulnerable eyes and unguarded smile help to channel a feisty woman that is trying valiantly to protect herself in the face of strong feelings for someone she believes to be out of her reach. But Randal brings up a good point: how is it possible that a "hideous C.H.U.D." like Dante always has two good-looking women fighting over him?
There are, of course, the expected Smith cameos (Jason Lee wearing his My Name Is Earl whiskers, Ben Affleck sporting some porn-star 'stache) and the reliably diverse soundtrack (when was the last time you were treated to the dulcet tones of King Diamond?). Smith's Silent Bob gets his requisite soliloquy at the end, but Mewes' Jay continues to steal the show. A much-publicized heroin addiction threatened to derail Mewes' career, if not his life, and though Smith gets some comedic mileage working Mewes' real-life legal problems into the script, it's the fearlessly entertaining --- and couple-years-clean --- Mewes who's getting the last laugh. And may again, if the end credits of Clerks II are to be believed.