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Back to mining the store

Kevin Smith has come full circle, picking up where `Clerks' left off 12 years ago. Will it brand him a boy wonder also-ran or a comeback king?

July 16, 2006|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

THE opening credits of "Clerks II" feature a travelogue montage of suburbia, as a song by Talking Heads gently croons, "Years ago I was an angry young man." The same might be said of writer and director Kevin Smith. Since bursting onto the scene 12 years ago with the first "Clerks" -- a rowdy, melancholy-laced comedy about dead-end jobs financed largely on credit cards -- and over the course of six more features, Smith has become a curiously divisive figure, somehow symbolizing tremendous success and total failure.

His notoriously dedicated fan base, feverishly reciting quotes and rabidly buying up his merchandise, sees him as a regular guy made good. Critics, by and large, have come to see him as self-satisfied and lazy. Coming off the critical and commercial implosion of his previous film, "Jersey Girl," which was a conscious attempt at making a more conventional mainstream movie, Smith finds himself back where he started. Though it may be easy to dismiss the dour reception of "Jersey Girl" as simply a part of the backlash against the tabloid romance of its stars, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, there is certainly more to it than that, as the film exposed cracks in the foundation of Smith's work.

As if to encapsulate the rather uncertain position Smith now occupies in the Hollywood landscape, HBO's insider comedy "Entourage" recently dropped Smith's name (alongside Michael Bay, no less) as shorthand for sloppy, soulless filmmaking. By reviving the characters from his first feature in "Clerks II," Smith now takes stock of his emotional life in his mid-30s in the same way "Clerks" surveyed his 20s. A freewheeling farce on lack of direction, stillborn ambitions and a life of mindless drudgery has given way to a rueful examination of unfulfilled promises, dashed dreams and the resigned acceptance of one's lot in life.

Though he often projects a demeanor of laid-back affability, there is also a free-floating air of anxiety and discontentment that hovers near Smith as well. He has an astounding recollection of his own bad reviews -- hello, Eleanor Ringel Gillespie of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution -- and exhibits an uncanny knack for diffusing criticism by preemptively turning it into a joke. Over the course of two encounters in the span of a few days, he wore similar-looking athletic jerseys with slogans emblazoned across the back -- one read "Hack" and the other "Sell Out."

The first "Clerks" came about during that time just before the Internet (yes, such a time existed), the era of grunge and "Slacker," when many of those upon whom the Gen-X label was being imposed found themselves grappling with a heightened awareness of the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't choices that ambition brings, the inescapable compromises of trying to achieve success on one's own terms. That ambivalence remains very much at the core of Smith's films, as the overarching structures of his work are derived from an essential tension between the rowdy, fan-pleasing trash talk and a searching, yearning need for a deeper emotional resonance. The results are often something like an existential shrug.

"At the end of the day I can only do what I can do," he says. "You read a lot of reviews where people say, 'You should stretch. He should learn to stretch as a filmmaker.' After a dozen years now, don't they get it?

"This is what I do, this is the storyteller I am. Do I let myself off the hook by saying, 'I'm just not that talented?' Probably. But also I think it's important to know your limitations. I've kind of embraced mine. And I've had seven films' worth of practice to figure that out."

As "Clerks II" begins, the convenience store where Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) continued to work has burned to the ground. Both in their mid-30s, they soon find themselves working at one of the few jobs worse than the one they had, at a fast-food restaurant named Mooby's. Dante is planning to move to Florida soon with his fiancee (played by Smith's real-life wife, Jennifer Schwalbach), where her parents will give them a house and a carwash to run and they will live a respectable, regular life. But his escalating infatuation with the manager at Mooby's (the film's secret weapon, Rosario Dawson) makes him rethink his plans. (The film also features, as have all his films except "Jersey Girl," Smith himself as the character of Silent Bob, along with his sidekick, Jay, played by Jason Mewes.)

On a personal level, in the years since his debut feature, Smith, who turns 36 in August, has gotten married, become a father, entered his 30s and moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles. It's not difficult to look at his filmography as chapters in an ongoing autobiography. After the rather crushing fate met by "Jersey Girl," Smith had to really take stock of himself, and he found revisiting the characters of Randal and Dante to be just the way to do it.

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