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`Clerks II' is a lot like old times

July 21, 2006|Michael Phillips | Chicago Tribune

Shot for a dime in black and white, the first "Clerks" (1994) looks better with each passing year, and you can't say that about everything that came out of New Jersey. In writer-director Kevin Smith's debut feature, Dante Hicks and Randal Graves worked as register jockeys at a Quick Stop convenience mart and an adjoining video store, respectively. Portrayed by newcomers Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson, the goateed, initiative-challenged Dante played off his serenely troublemaking friend like the duo had rehearsed their act all their slacking, sweet-natured lives.

Smith got the best from everybody coming through the place or hanging out in front of it, chiefly the drug dealer Jay (Jason Mewes, invaluable in "Clerks II" if only for the way he says "yupyup") and his comrade Silent Bob (Smith). What was striking about "Clerks" wasn't just its winging-it vibe. Straight off, the writer-director displayed a knack for pacing his patter swiftly in front of a dispassionate, usually stationary camera. It was like art-house indie vaudeville. His characters' epic time-killing dissections of the initial "Star Wars" trilogy's merits blended seamlessly with their half-acknowledged fear of encroaching adulthood. Does growing up mean no more playing hooky (or hockey) on company time? Does it mean, in Dante's sage words, not being able to "rip into the occasional customer"?

"Clerks II" trades the old Quick Stop for a burger joint and answers those questions in the negative. The new film is more conventional and stridently outrageous. Yet it offers a few choice bits of effrontery. In an example of the sequel's co-mingled pluses and minuses, a protracted scene of "interspecies erotica" involving a donkey and his keeper is redeemed by a simple, unexpected line from the least likely character.

Having lost the Quick Stop to a fire, Dante and Randal, a little jowly now that they've hit their early 30s, have matriculated sideways to Mooby's, where they flip burgers alongside the "Lord of the Rings" freak Elias (Trevor Fehrman). Dante's engaged to Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach, the real-life Mrs. Smith), a brittle harridan whose family is setting up the couple with a job and a house in Florida. Randal can't believe his friend would forsake him, and New Jersey.

Nice and loose if improbably glamorous for this particular universe, Rosario Dawson plays manager Becky, who has her own reasons for wondering if Dante's doing the right thing. As with the first "Clerks," the sequel manages to fake only enough story to set up each new on-the-job vignette or, in the case of a go-cart montage scored to "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," another diversionary detour. In the first movie, the guys played hockey on the convenience store roof; in the new one, Becky teaches Dante how to dance atop the fast-food emporium to the tune of the Jackson 5's "ABC."

"Clerks II" is more sentimental and ruder than its predecessor, though its brand of raunch tends to curdle halfway out of the characters' mouths. Smith risks hypocrisy in the way he lets the newly irritating Randal spew all sorts of cluelessly racist bile while Dante is reduced to a sputtering scold. The limited acting resources of his two leads are also a problem, as well as director Smith's technique, which may be busier than it was a decade ago, but it's no better. What's with all the pushy reaction shots every 10 seconds?

Plenty of Smith's post-"Clerks" work, especially "Chasing Amy" and "Dogma," has expanded on the screenwriting strengths of the movie that got him going. His ranting soliloquies have a real sense of occasion about them, and he's unafraid of monster issues, such as faith and redemption and romantic love. Here and there in "Clerks II," Smith uncorks a good one, as when Randal reduces a movie-geek customer to spewing his milkshake by the sheer force of his insults. (Verbal jokes plus a visual capper equal success.) While the sequel cannot match the original, it's important to remember: The original really was original, a remembrance of things not long past and an evocation of how some of us yakked and daydreamed and spent a misspent young adulthood.


'Clerks II'

MPAA rating: R for pervasive sexual and crude content including aberrant sexuality, strong language and some drug material

An MGM release of a Weinstein Co. production. Writer-director-editor Kevin Smith. Producer Scott Mosier. Director of photography David Klein.

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

In general release.

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