EMPIRE ESSAY: Clerks Review

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A day in the lives of two convenience clerks named Dante and Randal as they annoy customers, discuss movies, and play hockey on the store roof.


Life is hard when you're a wunderkind. Writer/director/ actor Kevin Smith made Clerks for $27,575 scraped together after he dropped out of film school. Since then, he's had decent budgets and bankable stars to play with for Mallrats (1995), Chasing Amy (1997) and Dogma (1999), none of which come anywhere near to matching the low-budget brilliance of his debut feature. Shot in black and white on a 16mm camera, and featuring a cast of frankly crap actors, Clerks is easily the cleverest and funniest comedy of the 90s. Since then, money and acclaim have been Smith's downfall, allowing him too many indulgent references to his Star Wars and superhero obsessions and far too many pointless cameos from the likes of Marvel Comics supremo Stan Lee. Hopefully, 2001 's Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back will see the boy wonder back on track. Fortunately, Clerks bears intense repeated viewing while we're waiting for Smith to once again come up with the goods.

Set in the Quick Stop convenience store at 58 Leonard Avenue in Leonardo, New Jersey, Clerks tells the story of a day in the life of Dante Hicks (O'Halloran). Overeducated, underpaid, apathetic and yet likeable, Dante is Generation X made flesh, agonising over his tangled personal life, while marking time in a brain-numbing dead-end job. If Basil Fawlty was funny because he was an hotelier who hated his guests, then Dante is funny because he's a convenience store clerk who hates his customers. And what a bunch they are.

From the chewing gum salesman who whips up an anti-smoking mob, to the oldster who borrows a porno mag to read in the employees-only John; from the weirdo on a quest to find the perfect dozen eggs, to the musclebound meathead who cruises chicks while ridiculing Dante's physique, all human life is to be found at the Quick Stop. Next door at RST Video lurks the scabrous Randal (Jeff Anderson). While Dante takes whatever the customers dish out, Randal is forever launching pre-emptive strikes, lacerating them with razor-wire wit before they've even had a chance to bore him with their stupidity.

Usually, this is unconscionably cruel, but highly funny, as when a young mother asks for her kiddie's favourite cartoon, and is given a run-down of exceptionally disgusting hardcore porn titles. Outside, friendly neighbourhood drug dealers Jay and the accurately-named Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and, yes, Kevin Smith) trawl for business, with Jay occasionally wandering into the Quick Stop to shoplift or aim friendly insults at the woeful Dante.

The one thing Dante has going for him is Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti), the feisty girlfriend who patently gives a damn sending the anti-smoking rioters packing, bringing her man lasagne for lunch, and urging him to go back to college. Dante, however, is still hung up on Caitlin (Lisa Spoonauer), the high school sweetheart who cheated on him "eight and a half times" and whose engagement to an Asian design major, reported in the local paper, is causing him great distress. The deliciously self-assured Caitlin returns home to tell Dante that she's not really engaged, but ends up having sex in the darkened men's room with the porn mag-borrowing old guy, in the mistaken belief that he's Dante.

To make matters worse, the pensioner is revealed to have been dead for some time before his liaison with Caitlin. As Caitlin is hauled off to the nuthouse, the hapless Dante is dumped by Veronica, just as he has been made to realise, by Silent Bob of all people, that it's she who he loves. After a store-trashing fight with Randal, he finally achieves the blessed relief of closing the store. And the supreme irony? This is his day off, as Dante continually bemoans, "I'm not even supposed to be here today!"

As an assemblage of weird and twisted scenes from the butt-end of American life (appropriately enough, Smith named his production company View Askew), Clerks has been much imitated but never equalled. Typical US "indie" efforts like SubUrbia (1996) and Empire Records (1995) don't even come close. Smith may have merely been drawing on his own experiences of working at the Quick Stop, but the comic vignettes are so cunningly interwoven, and the classic lines are deployed with such unhinged abandon, that you
have to concede his current reputation as the Quentin Tarantino of comedy is a richly deserved one.

Despite containing no scenes depicting sex or violence (unless you count Dante and Randal's truly pathetic tussle), Clerks has perhaps the most unrelentingly offensive dialogue you've ever heard (seriously, it's that good) and this was enough to win it a dreaded NC-17 rating in the States. Usually reserved for porno flicks, the rating was eventually reduced after the all-powerful Miramax picked up the flick and hired hotshot attorney Alan Dershowitz to argue their case.

Rudeness intact, Smith's dialogue is a thing of comic wonder. As a one-stop catchphrase shop, it trounces even Spinal Tap. From Dante's "My girlfriend sucked 37 dicks!" (Customer: "In a row?") to the roofer who asserts, "Any contractor working on that Death Star knew the risk involved".

Ultimately the film's philosophy is perhaps best expressed in the words of one of the Quick Stop's more articulate customers: "It's important to have a job that makes a difference, boys. That's why I manually masturbate caged animals for artificial insemination."

Two words: very funny.