Kevin Smith at Cannes in May, introducing a midnight screening of his belated sequel to the flick that immortalized and ended his stint as a Jersey quickie-mart clerk: “I’m pretty laid back,” he says, proving the point with his wardrobe of knee-length jeans, Jeff Spicoli kicks, and tuxedo top. “But this gets my dick hard.”
Lengthening Smith’s good fortune, so to speak, as no other follow-up to Jersey Girl possibly could, Clerks II—even at something like a thousand times the cost of the original—is nonetheless a movie about downward mobility. Aging minimum-wagers Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) are still telling dick jokes on the job, but the punch lines aren’t half as funny—one example of how Smith’s own slacking works conveniently as characterization. Worse for them, the boys have been reduced to clock-punching at Mooby’s, home of the Cowtipper. Seems the stench of shitty meat is in the air this year: Cannes saw both Smith and his one-time DIY idol Richard Linklater rendering the raw deal of our fast-food nation in shots taken from cars cruising corporate-suburban Logoland. Alas, Clerks II passes on the chance to make ye ol’ Quick Stop another casualty of the monoculture’s war on indiedom: wild man Randal simply fucked up and torched the joint by accident—which a shrink-style critic might use as evidence that some part of Smith blames his id for the fact that it ain’t like the Nineties anymore.
Of course, time takes toll enough by itself, and not even Linklater’s recent nine-years-later sequel measures the distance between sunrise and sunset like this one does. Once smooth, Dante’s face (or O’Halloran’s?) has contorted into a scowl of cruelly unfulfilled potential. (That Randal appears merely puffier than his former self is maybe a testament to the benefits of spitting at one’s adversaries from across the counter; unlike Dante, this master of his own destiny never had much difficulty letting off steam.) God-fearing to a fault, poor Dante is once again torn between two chicks: he’s engaged to clingy Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach Smith), she of the super-size sex drive (and clitoris to match); and he’s in love with Becky (Rosario Dawson), the Mooby’s manager who once let him take her on the fryer after hours. The main obstacle in this comedy of refornication is Becky’s belief that marriage goes against the natural human impulse to nail anything that moves.
As always, Smith empowers his female characters by making them horny and redeems his male ones by making them mushy—for each other. The “latent homosexuality” that Randal attributed to his best pal back in the day has become verily engorged. Indeed, it’s hard to fathom a movie getting more mileage out of the gay-panic shtick of straight guys than this one—not only because every third gag is about cock-chugging, or because Jay’s nipple-tweaking shimmy to Jame Gumb’s beloved “Goodbye Horses” is clearly designed to get a rise out of Smith’s Silent Bob, but because all this phobia, all this comedy is just a ruse to disguise Randal’s real fear that his altar-bound buddy won’t need him like before.
As they say in Sequelville: this time it’s personal. Notwithstanding the auteur’s typical bids at catharsis through the blatant bitch-slapping of taboos (e.g., “interspecies erotica” and, alas, the N-word), Clerks II is unique in the Smith oeuvre for being genuinely bittersweet. Its contrived happy ending can’t help the 36-year-old clerk at the Weinstein Co. resolve the question of whether what’s in store is a grand reopening or a long goodbye, so he leaves it unresolved, more like Empire than Jedi. Jay (Jason Mewes) might’ve turned to Jesus in his moment of crisis, but Smith ought to feel free to become Hellboy from here. Isn’t it awesome to think that ambiguity is what could make the dude’s dick hard in the late-2000s?