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Clerks II

Smith Revisits Counter Culture, With Uneven Results

It’s been 12 years since Kevin Smith burst onto the scene with Clerks, a no-budget, black-and-white tribute to the guys who didn’t make it, the twentysomethings who bide their time behind convenience-store counters, debating the finer points of Star Wars mythology and dealing with a never-ending stream of annoying customers. That movie had an authentic feel, probably because Smith did hard time behind those counters himself before emerging as an unlikely Hollywood mogul.

Clerks II, filmed in color, is a return to that simpler time, inspired less by working-class frustration than by nostalgic whimsy. (One might accuse Smith of cashing in cynically on what is arguably his defining achievement, but his affection for the old neighborhood and its zany characters is too genuine for that.) At the center of the inaction are Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson), the same pair who once manned the Quick Stop counter. The old haunt burns to the ground in the opening scenes of Clerks II, paving the way for their lateral leap to Mooby’s, a fictitious fast-food chain that promises “udderly delicious” dining.

Luckily, Mooby’s doesn’t have many customers, giving Dante and Randal plenty of time to browse the Internet and debate the merits of “ass-to-mouth”. And yes, there’s another Star Wars argument -- this time, pitting the Holy Trilogy against the Lord of the Rings franchise. But Smith’s latest lacks the colorful cast of customers that inhabited the original. Yes, there are (largely uneventful) cameos by Ben Affleck and Wanda Sykes, and a lively walk-on by Mallrats star Jason Lee, but part of the original’s charm was the comical interplay between Dante, an overwhelmingly bland schlub, and his antagonists on the other side of the counter. This time, the action is almost entirely behind the register, and there are moments when it feels painfully forced.

That said, Clerks II is something of an achievement in its own right. It’s not easy to go home again, or so we are told, but Smith has done it with a sharp script and an obvious desire to flesh out his core characters. Randal, a smartass slacker whose personality was summed up by a series of snide quips in the original, is now a man – an overgrown adolescent, really – with (limited) ambition, perspective and heart. Meanwhile, Dante remains the consummate whiner, though he harbors dreams of a new life with his fiancée, Emma (Jennifer Schwabach, Smith’s real-life wife). The only problem? His unresolved passion for Becky (Rosario Dawson), a fellow Mooby’s employee who embodies all the virtues of the Perfect Girlfriend.

But never mind the plot, that’s beside the point. Clerks II is a forum for Smith’s dialogue, which consists of cutting pop-culture references and jokes about anal sex, oral sex, bestiality… well, you get the idea. The good news is that most of the jokes work at a certain raunchy level. The bad news is that the movie is unnecessary. It’s entertaining enough, and it provides resolution for fans who have been waiting 12 years to learn the fates of Dante, Randal, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith). (The latter two are still selling drugs on the corner, if you’re curious.) But the entire enterprise feels slightly bittersweet, as if Smith is revisiting his youth one last time and bidding it a reluctant farewell. That may be a cathartic experience for him, but for a generation of moviegoers who fell in love with indie surprises like the original Clerks, this one is merely a pleasant distraction.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars