Kevin Smith has always had a tendency for self-mythologising. Back in 1994, he shot Clerks on a wing, a prayer, and a mountain of credit card debt – turning his behind-the-counter experiences into a generation-defining slacker comedy, filmed through the night at the real-life Quick Stop shop he once worked at in New Jersey. From there, his expanding ‘View Askewniverse’ has reflected and refracted various parts of the wider Smythology: his love of comic books in Mallrats (he since opened a real comic book shop named after fictional characters Jay & Silent Bob), his wranglings with Catholicism in Dogma, and his feelings on fatherhood and passion for weed in 2019’s Jay & Silent Bob Reboot.
Clerks III is Smith at his most self-reflexive. After checking back in on Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) in 2006’s Clerks II – taking the middle-aged pair out of Quick Stop, into a Mooby’s fast food restaurant, and eventually back to their old haunt as owners – he returns to his original shit-shooting duo once more as they approach 50. Each has always represented a facet of Smith himself – Dante bored, sorry for himself, and wishing to be anywhere else but behind a till in Jersey, Randal (a part Smith originally wrote for himself, gifted all the funniest lines) smart and sharp-tongued and obsessed with pop-cultural minutiae. This time, Randal suffers a ‘widow-maker’ heart attack that very nearly kills him – just as Smith did in 2018, mining hyper-specific details from his own brush with death – and responds to his renewed sense of mortality by deciding to make his own movie about clerks at the Quick Stop; effectively, Clerks.
It's the Kevin Smith of the past, remixed by Kevin Smith of the present.
Does Clerks III, then, represent a shameless re-treading of old ground, reliant on endless callbacks and familiar faces from previous Smith films, or is it a work of ouroborosian metatextual genius? The answer is a bit of both – it’s the Smith of the past remixed by the Smith of the present, veering between disappointing and deeply affecting from scene to scene.
Having long held out on making a threequel due to Anderson’s reluctance to return as Randal, Smith’s patience is ultimately rewarded – Anderson and O’Halloran are both excellent, slipping back into their old-couple bickering dynamic brilliantly, their chemistry totally natural, honed over decades of playing these characters. Randal still gets the funniest lines, whether praying to Conan the Barbarian’s god after suffering his heart-attack (“Are you there, Crom? It’s me, Randal”), trying to get his head around the world of cryptocurrency (“Make-pretend Matrix money”), or ruminating on his cinematic ambitions (“I see myself more like retail’s Richard Linklater”). O’Halloran too wrings laughs and pathos from the ever-pitiable Dante – particularly in (yet another) Star Wars riff as he tries to figure out what place he occupies in Randal’s screenplay (“I’m not even the Lobot?!”). His wonderful chemistry with Rosario Dawson’s Becky from Clerks II is an undisputed highlight here – though the nature of Dawson’s role this time is a peculiar, bitter pill to swallow.
It’s in the humour department that Clerks III stumbles. While less reliant on relentless cameos than Jay & Silent Bob Reboot, it still often stops dead in its tracks to crowbar in appearances from the Smith roster. Trevor Fehrman’s Elias, great fun in Clerks II, is way too prominent here, playing on a cartoonish register at odds with the rest of proceedings, landed with a sluggish comedic riff about his shift from hardcore Christian to devil worshipper, and given his own unnecessary Silent Bob-alike sidekick in Austin Zajur’s Blockchain. The film lacks a killer pop culture rant like Clerks’ Death Star contractors sequence, or Clerks II’s Star Wars vs Lord Of The Rings nerd-off, and is disappointingly flat visually as well, lacking the scuzzy black-and-white aesthetic of the original or the pastel-purgatory of Clerks II. Despite being a film so intently about Clerks, it doesn’t always feel like a Clerks movie – partially due to tonal lapses into Jay & Silent Bob wacky stoner gags, and in rejecting the set-across-a-single-day formula of the previous entries.
But when it gets beyond the peripheral characters and focuses on Dante and Randal, Clerks III delivers some of Smith’s most arresting work in years. Ironically, Clerks III’s heart is fully unblocked – and like with Clerks II’s jail-cell meltdown and Reboot’s mini-Chasing Amy sequel, Smith proves that when he gets emotional, he’s still really got it. For all that Smith and his players are clearly revelling in reliving the past, it gradually becomes clear that Dante is stuck circling ever-deeper pits of hell – culminating in a brilliantly-conceived re-do of Clerks’ salsa-shark scene, O’Halloran letting loose in a beautifully brutal outpouring of rage. Marilyn Ghigliotti is equally committed in her return as Dante’s original girlfriend Veronica, while the outcome of Randal’s moviemaking attempt will be emotional kryptonite to viewers with decades-long affection for the central duo.
As the third Clerks movie, chiefly about Clerks itself, Clerks III is resolutely one for the fans – but if you’ve long bought into Kevin Smith’s sprawling self-mythology, this is a surprisingly moving new chapter in his ongoing, Alanis Morrissette-approved bible.