Back in the summer of 2019, I set out to watch every Kevin Smith film leading up to the release of Jay and Silent Bob Reboot. It was a fantastic experience where I wrote about the movies as I watched them, watched no trailers ahead of seeing the film (leading to a shocker in Jersey Girl), and then ranked my favorite films, performances, and scenes.
Being the pop culture geek that I am, folks are surprised to learn that I only started watching Smith’s films 2019. Up until then, he was only a podcaster (and that only since 2012). So I’m watching all of these films as a guy in his early fifties rather than the younger person I was had I watched these movies in real time. As a result, they strike me differently (just look at my favorite Smith film), yet I suspect Clerks III will affect many of Smith’s fans in a poignant way.
Where We Left Off
At the end of Clerks II (2006), Dante (Brian O'Hallaran) and Randel (Jeff Anderson) had steered their lives full circle and purchased the Quick Stop convenience store, the setting of Clerks. Dante finally realized he loved Becky (Rosario Dawson) and opted to stay with her, especially since she is pregnant with his child. “Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” quipped Randal as the camera panned back, shifted to black and white, to the wonderful Soul Asylum song, “Misery.”
Little did we know how much misery was in store for our pair of clerks.
Spoilers from here on out.
Where We Pick Up
Just like the first two films, Dante opens the Quick Stop, complete with gum in the padlock. The warm feelings you get from seeing this family setting are immediately doused with water when you see an obituary on the counter: Becky, Dante’s fiancée from Clerks II, died. Not only that, but she died in 2006, the year the film was released. What the hell? What about the happy ending we got at the end of II?
Well, there was an ending to that movie, but life went on. And life can throw you curveballs, something Smith himself knows all too well. Back in 2018, after the first of two shows, Smith experienced a heart attack, a widow-maker, the kind of heart attack only 20% of people survive. Smith survived and changed his life, his diet, and his vision of life. He’s living on borrowed time, he says, something that Randal comes around to as well as he survives a similar heart attack.
Unlike Smith (who had an established body of work by 2018), Randal laments what he’s made of his life. “You saved my life,” he tells Dante. “I just wish I had a life worth saving.” These two friends—hetero life mates—love each other (in a total hetero way) and Randal gets the idea to make a movie about the life of a clerk at a convenience store. Naturally, he centers the movie on himself, and he uses all of his experiences (i.e., the events of Clerks and Clerks II) as grist for his mill. Then, just like Smith did in real life, the process of making a movie commences.
Making the Movie Within the Movie
There are lots of in-jokes and familiar nods and winks back to earlier Clerks films and other Smith movies during the middle part of Clerks III. I probably missed a few but I got the gist of them all. They’re all fun Easter eggs for long-time fans.
The Heart of the Story, Part 1: Dante and Becky
It’s one thing to see Becky’s obituary on the counter. It’s quite another when you see Dante heading through a graveyard and you know exactly what’s about to happen. But I guarantee you might not be prepared for the emotional reaction to the ‘talking to a tombstone’ scene, especially when Dante talks with Becky’s spirit. It is here we learn the true cause of Becky’s death: a drunk driver. Dante tells Becky he’s stuck, that he can’t go on in life, but she tries to redirect him. She tries to get him to understand that he’s still living, that he still has a chance to do anything he wants. It is simultaneously heartbreaking and inspirational, and Brian O’Hallaran does some great acting here, the kind of acting that comes from living with a character for nearly thirty years. Sure, it’s only been three movies, but O’Hallaran is pretty much synonymous with Dante for me and a lot of other people.
Dante and Becky have three total scenes together and you get banged over the head with one of Smith’s central themes: life throws you curve balls. You can let them knock you off course, but if you don’t reset, you will wallow in misery, despair, and melancholy. Up until the events of this movie, that’s where Dante’s been for sixteen years.
The Heart of the Story, Part 2: Dante and Randal
I wrote in my review of Clerks II about the surprise I felt when I saw how Smith broadened and deepened the relationship between Dante and Randal. This pair of decades-long friends truly love and care for each other. In this movie, you see it on Dante’s face when Randal is rushed to the hospital. You see it on Randal’s face later on in the movie, but that doesn’t mean they don’t bare their souls to each other. Randal had a fantastic scene in Clerks II, so it’s Dante’s turn in Clerks III.
Brian O’Hallaran and Jeff Anderson might not get a lot of attention in the acting community but they both knocked it out of the park in this movie. Randal turned his speech from Clerks on its head with his new outlook on life, but it’s Dante’s monologue in the Quick Stop that resonates. It is raw, laying bare the agony he’s endured in the years since Becky died. He had his happily ever after but it was ripped away. When Randal counters with “I almost died,” Dante retorts with “Some of us did die.” O’Hallaran delivers these lines as if he endured Dante’s life personally. This scene will find a place on the list of my all-time favorite Smith scenes, but I wasn’t expecting what happened next.
Dante falls victim to a heart attack.
Now, you might roll your eyes at that, but it was foreshadowed earlier in the film. And it compelled Randal to reexamine the type of movie he was making. He realized Dante, not Randal himself, who was the star of the film. He quickly re-cut the movie on his computer and showed it to a bedridden Dante. Then, you see all the old scenes from Clerks, but you also see a present-day Dante in a movie theater watching the movie, a wistful smile on his face. A hand reaches out and takes his. It’s Becky. And it’s then you realize that if Becky and Dante are holding hands, Dante himself is dying.
And he does. There are a lot of good last lines in movies, but for Dante, his final words are incredibly poignant. When Becky asks if he wants to stay and watch the rest of the movie, he replies with utter calmness and pride: “I trust the director.”
The Overturning of a Famous Quote
I’m not sure how many of the folks in my theater were crying when Dante died, but I sure was. Heck, my voice broke a couple of times when I later told my wife the events of the story. Yes, I cry at a lot of things, but these movies and these characters, even over just three years, have come to represent something. I think lots of fiftysomething folks, guys especially, find pieces of themselves in the lives of Dante and Randal.
But leave it to Kevin Smith to take one of his most famous quotes and change it. A running gag in Clerks was that Dante came into work on his day off. To just about everyone, he kept lamenting that “I’m not supposed to be here today.”
Now, in Clerks III, at Dante’s funeral, it’s Randal looking down at his friend’s coffin for the last time and he laments that he [Dante] isn’t even supposed to be here [at his own funeral] today.
That’s a fantastic piece of storytelling.
The Closing Voiceover
As the credits rolled to the deep baritone voice of John Gorka singing “I’m from New Jersey,” the music faded out and Smith returned. He talked about how immensely happy he was to have made this third clerks film and to the career he’s had. But he goes on to reveal a little bit of a scene that didn’t make the movie. It was a voiceover of a 90-year-old Randal Graves reflecting on his own life and all the movies he made after his celebrated debut, “Clerk.” “I always thought that jobs would have been great if it weren’t for the f*cking customers. But as it turns out, these jobs are great because of the f*cking customers.” Smith return and sums it all up. “He [Randal] means it, and so do I. Thank you to everybody who ever walked through that door of that store and made me think ‘Somebody ought to put this in a f*cking movie.’ Somebody did. Thank you.”
Thank you, Kevin Smith, for making movies like this. I may have been super late to the party, but I’m so glad I joined.
Clerks III is a good film with some outstanding moments that should resonate with its audience long after the credits fade to black. It still has some cringe-worthy moments, but none like the donkey stuff in Clerks II. But it is utterly fascinating to watch this film (actually all three Clerks films) about two characters at different stages of their lives by a filmmaker in those same stages. It’s not quick like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (in which he filmed an actor over a decade actually growing up) but it’s in the same spirit.
Back in 2019, right before I actually watched Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, I ranked all the films. After Reboot, I ended up putting it at number 4. I have honestly only seen Reboot one time—during the tour when Kevin and Jay were on hand to take questions—so I’ll have to go back and watch it again. But Clerks III is going to be side-by-side with Reboot. Both deal with getting older and becoming more sentimental, but in different ways. I might give the edge to Clerks III for its ultimately inspirational theme that no matter how old you are, it's never too late to try something new.
In terms of scenes, the Dante and Randal fight and subsequent Dante monologue in the Quick Stop is one of the best written by Smith and acted by O'Hallaran and Anderson. Dante’s scene with Becky at her gravesite is also right up there. And the short moment at end, with Dante and Becky, also ranks as one of the best moments and lines in all of Smith’s films.