When the Quick Stop where he has worked for a decade burns down, Dante (O’Halloran) finds new employment at bovine-themed fast food joint Mooby’s, along with his old buddy-cum-bugbear Randal (Anderson). A year on, he’s only 24 hours away from a whole new life.
When dante and randal exited the Quick Stop at the close of Kevin Smith’s 1994 black-and-white indie debut, there was no pressing need for a sequel. And when Miramax experienced a fallow patch, it’s unlikely that Harvey Weinstein ever exclaimed, with dollar signs in his eyes, “I’ve got the answer! Clerks II!” Yet here it is, inspired less by public demand than by Smith’s curiosity. Like Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, Clerks II brings its characters out of suspended animation to uncover their path from twentysomething drift to thirtysomething anxiety. Unlike Before Sunset, it comes with a year’s supply of dick jokes.
Aside from Beavis & Butt-head, Dante and Randal were the least navel-gazing of Generation X icons, more energised by employment conditions on the Death Star than by the meaning of life. On the surface, the vibe of Clerks II is, to paraphrase the old T-shirt slogan: same shit, different decade. Once again, the action is framed by one working day, namely Dante’s last shift at Mooby’s before moving to Florida with his unsuitable rich-girl fiancée, Emma (played by Smith’s wife Jennifer); his only obstacles being the ever-present Randal and a complicated friendship with his vivacious boss, Becky (Rosario Dawson).
But a palpable cloud of sadness hangs over the Mooby’s crowd. Even pot-dealer Jay (Jason Mewes), a man of limited ambition, is moved to reflect: “Sometimes I wish I’d done more with my life than hanging out front of places selling weed and shit.” Silent Bob, as ever, just nods sagely. The $64,000 question is whether the bigger waste of Dante’s life is flipping burgers in Jersey or succumbing to a bloodless parody of adulthood in Florida. Is Randal the foul-mouthed albatross around his neck, or the best friend he’ll ever have?
As before, Anderson gets the best lines, ruminating at profane and hilarious length on the relative merits of the Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings trilogies (“just three movies of people walking”), but the passing of time has affected even him. His hatred for Peter Jackson, and relentless harrying of his geekish 19 year-old co-worker Elias (Trevor Fehrman), betrays his fear that a new generation gap has opened up and he’s on the wrong side.
Like The 40-Year-Old Virgin’s Judd Apatow, Smith has a natural gift for split personality, erecting the architecture of a traditional rom-com, then decorating it with obscene graffiti. Few directors would think to stage their big romantic set-piece against a backdrop of bestiality (sorry, “inter-species erotica”). Next to the first Clerks, the humour is broader (nobody will be comparing this one to Jim Jarmusch) and the sentimental streak deeper. One of many pop-montages not-so-subtly posits Dante and Randal as the Butch and Sundance of the McJob set; another, set to the Jackson 5’s ABC, is both shamelessly corny and genuinely moving, thanks to Dawson’s unfakeable fizz. She’s one welcome addition to the cast. Another is Fehrman, who embodies an innocence so complete, it borders on mental illness.
So what are we to make of Smith coming full circle like this? Like his heroes, he seems incapable of leaving behind either New Jersey or his old friends (regulars Ben Affleck and Jason Lee cameo as customers) for fresh pastures. On Jersey Girl, with its family-good-career-bad sanctimony, this made him resemble a smalltown reactionary, but here that blue-collar sensibility lends the scatology and slapstick a vital bittersweet tang. Clerks II advances the proposition, unfamiliar in Hollywood, that not every smartass wage slave is destined to fulfil his dreams (some don’t even have dreams), but that finding comfort in the familiar can be a small victory. With dick jokes.
Kevin Smith’s most enjoyable film since, well, Clerks lacks much of its predecessor’s outsider edge, but you’ll probably be laughing too hard to care.