Wednesday, September 18, 2019

I Finally Watched Clerks II

Clerks review
Mallrats review
Chasing Amy review
Dogma review
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back review
Jersey Girl review

Well, this is and isn't what I expected from Clerks II, the direct sequel to the 1994 film, Clerks, by Kevin Smith, and the sixth film in Smith's View Askew Universe. Coming out a dozen years after Clerks, Clerks II's immediate predecessor was 2004's Jersey Girl, a film that was a critical and commercial failure at the time, but is actually pretty good. It deserves its second wind just like Mallrats.

What I don't know is if Smith always planned on returning to Clerks II [end credits of Jay and Silent Bob seem to bear this out] or if he was so disappointed with the fallout from Jersey Girl that he returned to his View Askew Universe as a way to get back on track. Perhaps, with Jersey Girl, he was planning on a new phase of his career: a studio film followed by a personal, more indie film. Not sure. Either way, with Clerks II, Smith returned to the site that launched his career.

The Burning of the Quick Stop

I'll admit, in the opening moments of this movie, I was surprised to see Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) still driving to the Quick Stop to open. I assumed (correctly) that twelve years had passed since Clerks. Why would Dante still be working there? Wasn't there something more to life than being a clerk? Little did I know such a thought would be one of the movie's themes.

Little did Dante know that this particular day would be the last for the Quick Stop. Shot in black and white, just like the first one, the first we see color is of the fire burning the interior of the convenience store. Then, when we shift back to Dante, the movie's in full color. Nice effect on Smith's part, especially (if I remember the previous five View Askew movies well enough; I don't) this is the first time these characters have been on screen since Clerks.

I also appreciated the first of Dante's many eye rolls when Randal (Jeff Anderson) strolls past all the firemen, seemingly oblivious to the world around him (another theme!), and into the Quick Stop. Perplexed by their predicament, the two friends just sit and stare at the burned husk of a store.

What could be next for our two slackers?

Marriage...for one of them.

Working at Mooby's

A year later, Dante and Randal both work at Mooby's, the fictional burger joint in the View Askew Universe. By the time we see them again, Dante has a fiancee in Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach Smith). He's on his last day working at Mooby's before he and Emma move to Florida and Dante operates one of his father-in-law's car wash shops. He's outwardly happy larger, I think, because he has moved on. Randal, on the other hand, has not. He's basically still living in 1994 where he does just enough work to sustain (subsist?) himself and he gets to work alongside his best friend, Dante, and carry on seemingly endless conversations about life.

The pair have a new foil: Elias (Trevor Fehrman), a nineteen year old who is basically still the kind of kid Randal made fun of back in 1994. Or 1984. Or probably during his entire life. But, with the age difference--Dante and Randal are both...thirty-three--it gives Randal and Dante ammunition to disparage younger culture. In effect, they have become grumpy older slackers.

To round out the Mooby's ensemble is Becky Scott (Rosario Dawson). Smith famously casts his friends in his movies, but he has a way of finding the perfect females for his characters. I'm referring to the brilliant Joey Lauren Adams, the acerbic Linda Fiorentino, and the wonderful Raquel Castro. Dawson is so charming and gregarious that, as the show went on and it was revealed Becky and Dante loved each other, I wondered how in the world she'd end up with Dante. Still, she serves as the more grown-up counterpoint to Dante, and especially Randal, who, frankly, has never grown up.

The four of them play off each other throughout the entire film, often tackling topics as far ranging as ass-to-mouth and various phrases that have taken on different meanings over the years. Their interactions with their customers are also moments to jump off into a discussion. Loved seeing Ben Affleck back as a customer, but was sad it was only a cameo. In my notes, I wondered if this was a favor by Affleck to Smith for Jersey Girl. Anybody know?

Jay and Silent Bob Return

What I found fascinating about Jay and Silent Bob in this film was they didn't acknowledge Strike Back at all. They're out of rehab (jail?) and are still doing the same thing thing they've always done: sell drugs. It's the kind of thing I'd expect from them, but on the other hand, you have to wonder. If the  Bluntman and Chronic movie was made, and after the trademark monologue Silent Bob gives in Strike Back, you'd think Jay and Bob would have some money. And if they had money, might they also want to do something else?

[Aside: Yes, I know the end of the movie Jay and Bob loan Dante and Randal the money to open another Quick Stop, but at this point in the movie, it still had me wondering.]

Pop Culture Moved Forward

One of the frequent targets of Randal's rants is the Lord of the Rings fandom. Elias loves it and can quote from the movie...just like Randal can for Star Wars. Even a customer agrees with Elias. But during those scenes, I jotted down a note. I found it interesting Smith aimed at Lord of the Rings so hard...just like Star Wars fans themselves were aimed at by most of the rest of culture in 1977-1983. It's like Randal had his precious (intended!) pop culture event, but then looks down on every subsequent one from then on out. This film was likely written in 2005, the year Revenge of the Sith came out. Smith, like most of us who grew up on the Original Trilogy, didn't have the same feelings associated with the Prequel Trilogy. How could we? With the Original Trilogy, we were kids. Now, we're adults. It can't hit us the same way. But other trilogies can hit other people (read: younger) the same way as Star Wars consumed us. What is Smith saying here? Does each generation have its own "Star Wars" moment that is unique to said generation and cannot be understood by younger or older generations?

Jason Lee Arrives

Jason Lee only has one scene in this film, but it serves as the breaking point for Randal. Lee's character, a former friend from high school, laughs  at Dante and Randal for still flipping burgers. Somehow, Lee makes his character come across as both condescending and still influenced by Randal. It takes a special actor to pull that off, and Lee is that kind of actor.

[Aside: You are going to laugh at this, but other than a few episodes of My Name is Earl, the only thing I had seen Lee in up until these Smith films was Alvin and the Chipmunks and as the voice of Underdog (and Syndrome from the Incredibles). Hey, I had a kid at the time. As much as I've enjoyed seeing Lee in the View Askew films, I'm going to re-watch Alvin this Christmas and look at it with new eyes.]

The Emotional Heart of the Movie

By this time, Smith's seventh film, I have come to expect some sort of truth to arrive in this story. In Clerks II, we get two.

One is the more obvious from the moment you realize it. Becky loves Dante. Dante pretty much loves Becky, but he's committed to moving to Florida and marrying Emma. Smith telegraphs it in plain sight when we see Dante painting Becky's toenails in the office. In a riff straight out of Pulp Fiction's discussion of a foot massage, this rather intimate act lets us viewers know exactly what's going on. They try to hide it from Randal, but even he guesses the truth...way before the pair say it out loud.

I'll reiterate what I wrote above: how and why does Becky (and Emma) love Dante? In an echo from the spirit of Chasing Amy, Becky explains why. Emma played the field with all the hot guys. After a while, she came around to realizing that guys that look like Dante have more to offer.

Now, being a member of said group, one might take offense to that. But it goes back to the central truth from Chasing Amy: we find love in all sorts of places. Perhaps having Becky say those words was Smith's own wonderment that he found his wife and that they had a kid and made a family. We guys often are amazed when a girl says yes to a date and probably even more amazement when they say yes to marriage. With us.

When Dante says about Emma "She'll eventually get me," he's basically putting all this on the table. He knows he's marrying up, at least on the surface, which is where we find him for most of this film. I can't imagine marrying a person who would "eventually" get me. Or never. In all his podcasts, Smith talks about how his wife isn't a huge fan of Kevin Smith movies, but loves him anyway. It just played odd considering his wife is cast as the other woman. I'll have to research that and see how that came to be.

Back to the Roof...and Dancing!

Like pretty much all Smith fans, when Becky takes Dante to the roof in order to teach him to dance for his wedding, I loved the homage back to the rooftop hockey game in Clerks. What I didn't expect was probably the most charming thing I've seen in a Kevin Smith film to date.

A dance number! And to the tune of "ABC" by the Jackson 5 no less. Loved that it was a good cross-section of people. I was grinning ear to ear during this number. Absolutely loved it.

What I also love is the scene where Dante is watching Becky dance. Smith holds the camera on Brian O'Halloran's face. Whatever reticence Dante might have had up until this scene, you can see it all sloughing off in O'Halloran's expression. He was blind, but now he sees. He realizes he's in love with Becky. And O'Halloran did it simply with a facial expression. I'd be curious to know how many takes it took to get that shot, but O'Halloran's a good actor so I'm guessing he got it in one. Best Dante scene of the movie for me.

Inter-species Erotica

Back in the early part of his career, Stephen King commented that he'd get readers one of two ways: he'd either scare them or gross them out. Here, Smith goes for the latter. I guess it was for shock value, but still, it was way over the top. I guess that was the point. Moreover, if Randal, who will eventually confess the truth to Dante about his feelings for him, really cared for his friend, why would he bring in the donkey guy? Didn't get this part at all.

The Other Emotional Beating Heart of the Story

Dante and Randal. They've been together since we first saw them in Clerks. And we've already heard Jay refer to Bob as his hetero-life mate. I pretty much saw coming the real reason Randal was upset at Dante, but never did I expect the raw emotion I'd get from those scenes.

One of my favorite pairs of actors who played characters who loved and respected each other was James Spader and William Shatner in Boston Legal. No romance, but deep love for each other. I never expected to find it in a Kevin Smith movie when I started this odyssey, but the themes he's written about telegraphed it from the jump.

These two characters love each other. And, just like Dante and Becky love each other and don't/can't say it out loud, the same dynamic holds sway for Randal and Dante. But they are dudes. Guys traditionally have a difficult time expressing their emotions, especially to and about each other. But Randal did it. "You're my best friend and I love you, in a totally heterosexual way. Please don't leave me."

From what little I know about about Jeff Anderson, he read for the part of Jay but ended up landing the co-lead in Clerks. For that entire movie and three-quarters of this one, Anderson played Randal as a slacker who looked down on everyone via his language and life outlook. He's more of the star here in Clerks II, and, frankly, up until the closing scenes, I got rather annoyed with him.

Until the scene in the jail cell. Anderson opened up Randal in a real, raw, heart-felt way that surprised the heck out of me. "Who would want me as their friend?" Here he was, laying out his heart to his friend, finally saying what he felt for over a dozen years. Blew me away. It was one of the best scenes in the film and for the entire body of Smith's work (so far that I've seen). It ranks for me up there alongside Joey Lauren Adams's scene in the car (Chasing Amy) and a pair of Affleck's scenes in Jersey Girl. Fantastic work, Mr. Anderson. Fantastic work.

Silent Bob Speaks

"I got nuthin'." That what Silent Bob says in this film. While this is Smith's seventh film, it's only the sixth View Askew Universe film. Thus, the trend of Silent Bob saying great things stays in the odd numbered movies while his throwaway lines are saved for the even numbered movies.

Quick Stop Part II

Of course the end of the movie would be the two guys from Clerks re-opening the Quick Stop. But this time, they'd be the owners. It was Dante who first uttered the words as to what he'd do if he could live his life as his own. The only sticking point is they had no money to buy the property.

Enter Jay and Silent Bob. I guess we're all supposed to assume the reason the two stoners have a spare fifty grand is the royalties from the Bluntman and Chronic movie, but it's not mentioned in the film.

Loved Dante just showing up with the ring in the drive-thru, Becky smiling and sliding into the car. "What took you so long?" And then Elias gets to bring in Lord of the Rings with "One ring to rule them all."

Also loved how the movie ended: Dante and Randal, behind the counter of the Quick Stop. Randal says, "You're not supposed to be here" in an echo from Clerks. Dante replies with "It's the first day of the rest of our lives."

And we fade to black and white. With the milk lady--Smith's mom--doing her thing.

Irony in the Credits

A fascinating thing about most of Smith's films to date has been reading what Smith put in the credits. Unlike nearly every other film I see, Smith goes line by line, shouting out thanks to all the people in his life who helped make the movie or is a part of his life. In all of them, he thanks God first. I really appreciated seeing that, especially since he made Dogma. But on Clerks II, the shout out is this: "The director would like to thank: God - He who keeps my heart beating, and makes me appreciative, and scared." As I first watched Clerks II in 2019, a year after Smith's heart attack, I found the timing ironic. I can imagine a future Smith film's shout-out to God going something like "Glad you kept my heart beating, but I would have appreciated a little heads up." Well, Smith surviving the heart attack in 2018 was the warning, and he's turned his health around.

Two other shout outs are worth mentioning. Smith's praise of Jeff Anderson: "For not only coming back, but for knocking it out of the park and keeping me honest." Acting-wise, Anderson is the star of Clerks II. Not only did he make me annoyed by Randal, but he turned in the most emotional performance of the show. I also enjoyed Rosario's shout-out: "For saying yes and turning in a performance so great it made me actually believe that Becky would f*ck Dante." Smith and me (and everyone else?) included.

And then there's the Jersey Girl mention: "For taking it so hard in the ass and never complaining." Over the years, I've heard Smith throw shade on Jersey Girl. When I finish all his films, I'll be re-listening to his audiobook Touch Sh*t. I know he probably mentions some background into the aftermath of Jersey Girl, but as a first-time viewer in 2019, I loved the film. Smith mentions Mallrats needed time to find its audience. I'm waiting for Jersey Girl's turn.

The Verdict

Clerks II is a pretty good film, but not my favorite. It has heart, just occasionally obscured by the irritating stuff. There are moments that rank high in the overall View Askew Universe and some that rank pretty darn low. All in the same film. I thoroughly enjoyed Mallrats, Chasing Amy, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back in the universe, but I'd put both Clerks films together. I enjoyed Clerks II more. Again, seeing Clerks for the first time at fifty, its impact was not as great as it would have been back in 1994. That said, the life choices Dante and Randal face in Clerks II is more relatable to a fifty-year-old man: what am I doing with my life? Is this all there is? Granted, for me, I've answered those questions, but Dante and Randal had not. Now they have. Welcome to real life. Or middle life.

The End...For Now

At the last of the credits, Smith writes "Jay and Silent Bob might return one day. For now, they're taking it easy. Goodbye Horses." What this tells me is that Smith either had no ideas about his own universe or he was intentionally going to turn away from it. I know that Zack and Miri Make a Porno is next, but I'm curious to do a little research into where Smith's head and heart was in 2006. Did he see Clerks II as the end? Did he want to make non View Askew movies to broaden his audience? Did he intend to do one for the studio and one for himself?

In 2019, we know he's returning to the View Askew Universe. In contemporary interviews, he mentioned having the story in his head for awhile, including pre-heart attack. I also know he didn't find his audience for his last couple of films. When that happened, we finally get Reboot.

I wonder if that was Smith's pattern. It kind of held true for Jersey Girl/Clerks II. It'll certainly hold true for Reboot. I'm writing this review on 31 July 2019 so I've seen the new trailer and I think everyone is back at the party. And it's going to be a great party.

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