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Clerks II

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/25/06 21:35:05

"It sucks how many ways? Thirty-seven??!!"
1 stars (Sucks)

I’ve seen a lot of bad movies this year, but so far, none of them have been as equally disappointing and downright terrible as “Clerks II.” The film is more than a bad sequel to a good movie; it’s a horrible sequel, on par with, say, “Caddyshack II” in terms of desperation and comic failure. What went so very, very wrong?

The first place to look for answers is in “Jersey Girl,” writer/director Kevin Smith’s attempt to break free of the stoner universe of Jay and Silent Bob, the characters that ran through his first five movies. Following the thank you to fans that was “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” (a sloppy, problematic, yet pretty darn funny effort), Smith announced that he was retiring the characters that gave him cult fame. Off he went to churn out his first PG-13, mainstream work, the romantic comedy “Jersey Girl.” It failed for many reasons, chief among them the fact that Smith relied on tired, limp clichés and generic characters to carry him through a fairly awful plot. Not even Smith’s die-hard core fan base could bring themselves to like it.

Perhaps this is why Smith has now returned to his comfort zone, not only bringing back his familiar characters but going so far as to put together a sequel to his first and arguably most well-received movie. “Clerks II” is a knee-jerk reaction to a flop; instead of branching out even further or at least simply giving non-Silent Bob movies one more go, Smith retreats to a world where his fans are sure to still love him.

And here is where the problems begin. “Clerks” worked because it comes from personal experience: Smith took his life as a convenience store employee and turned it into a comedy that both mocked the weird assortment of customers and contemplated the state of stuck-in-a-rut Gen Xers. It is a movie that smacks of truth from first frame to last (yes, even the more absurd bits).

Some twelve years later, however, Kevin Smith is living comfortably, with five films under his belt. He enjoys successful appearances on “The Tonight Show,” tours the nation giving Q&A sessions at college campuses, owns two comic book stores, and lords over a cult empire of sorts. To put it bluntly: what makes Kevin Smith think he can still put truth into the story of a couple of retail shlubs?

He can’t, and “Clerks II” proves it. “Clerks” took place in a real-life convenience store. “Clerks II” takes place in a fictional fast food restaurant where the value meals have cutesy-funny names and the purple bowling shirt-esque uniforms look like they were designed specifically to be sold online or in shopping malls to people who think it’d be neat to wear funky, officially licensed “Clerks II” merchandise. There is nothing real in “Clerks II,” and that goes against everything that made the original film click.

Not to say that “Clerks” couldn’t work in a more fictional universe. After all, the short-lived “Clerks” animated TV series is well worth watching, and that show went to the outer reaches of goofy fiction. But “Clerks II” pretends to be firmly in the real world, delivering opinions on real problems. And we can’t buy it, because Smith is out of the loop. Could he make a movie about popular comedy filmmakers who own comic book shops? Absolutely. But this story from him about thirtysomethings stuck in bottom rung jobs, still struggling to figure out what to do with their lives, smacks of disconnect.

Of course, I wouldn’t be complaining about this if the movie were actually funny. Yet it is more than unfunny. It’s forcefully unfunny. Aggressively unfunny. The kind of unfunny that makes you wonder if those involved are trying to be unfunny. I grinned once, laughed never, and winced repeatedly.

Most of the humor here is supposed to duplicate the jokes of the first film, which saw its characters dealing with retail boredom by discussing graphic sex habits, rude customers, and “Star Wars.” Even the most peculiar of topics felt like natural debate material; I don’t doubt Smith and his friends actually did sit around one day arguing about construction workers on the Death Star.

In “Clerks II,” Smith (understandably) has nothing at all to say about the customers, the monotony, the crap job life. He’s been making movies for a decade; what does he know from loudmouthed jerks who don’t like the way their food was made? (In this case, last year’s otherwise terrible comedy “Waiting” is better than Smith’s movie. At least that film was made with an understanding of its food service environment, and, like the first “Clerks,” had quite a lot to say.)

Smith does have thirtysomething anxiety, though, so hey, let’s throw a lot of that into the story. Makes sense, actually - if you’re going to bring back your characters and toss them into a fast food world, they’d probably have a lot of bitching to do about their predicament. But - as evident from “Jersey Girl” - Smith is a different storyteller than he was back in the early 1990s, and he now seems comfortable relying on anemic clichés and little else. We get a predictable love triangle capped off with the most idiotic, hackneyed scene in Smith’s entire career: Dante (Brian O’Halloran), who is about to move to Florida to get married to Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach), laments to his boss, the lovely Becky (Rosario Dawson), that he’s nervous because he can’t dance, and he’ll be expected to dance at the reception, and he wants to make a good impression, and whaddya know, Becky’s going to teach him how to dance, on the roof, to the tune of the Jackson Five’s “ABC.”

Seriously.

It’s a feel-good scene that doesn’t belong in the cynical universe of Dante and Randal. These are guys who would make fun of dopey moments like this, not live through them.

Of course, it’s all part of Smith’s plan to allow these characters to grow up. Which is nice, in theory, as characters do need to grow. But their pre-mid-life crisis feels a little forced (kicked off only because Dante is leaving), and it leads to all the wrong resolutions. The finale plays all the wrong notes, wrapping things up on an optimistic note that the people of “Clerks” would deride as unrealistic, syrupy, and downright stupid.

All of this leads to the idea that “Clerks II” is what “Clerks” might have been like as a network sitcom. Sure, there’s dirty talk and donkey sex, but at its core, “Clerks II” plays it as safely as a fourth-season episode of “Two and a Half Men.” The set-ups, the situations, the resolutions, they’re all agreeably conventional - this from a sequel to a movie that broke conventions. Come on. Dance lessons? How lame is that?

But back to the desperate attempt to duplicate the yuks of the original. In “Clerks II,” Smith comes to the realization that he’s out of material. Whatever pop culture jokes he didn’t use in “Clerks,” he burned through in his follow-ups. Now he’s got nothing. But it wouldn’t be “Clerks” without pop culture jokes, so Smith tosses together a series of turkeys like a discussion about why Transformers are sacrilegious creations or why “The Lord of the Rings” were movies that went nowhere. (Ironically, the jokes about this also go nowhere.) There’s nothing here that sings the way his past pop culture bits have; the references here feel obligatory and uninspired.

Each punchline shows Smith gasping at envelopes to push. There’s a whole subplot about Randal (Jeff Anderson) looking to hire an “interspecies erotica” act to perform for Dante’s going away party; it’s remarkably boring (and think about how bad a movie has to be for donkey sex jokes to become boring). Another subplot has Randal looking to “reclaim” a racist term; there’s no flow to this running gag, and a bit of dialogue it creates (in which Randal spouts off a slew of racial slurs) fizzles, becoming nothing more than a failed attempt from some guy to remember how a George Carlin comedy bit used to go.

Worst among all of this is the character of Elias (Trevor Fehrman), a nineteen-year-old combination virgin, Jesus freak, and Transformers fanatic. In “Clerks,” even the most outlandish of characters had the feeling that you could actually know them in real life - even Jay and Bob had yet to become the cartoonish fools of the later films. But Elias? Here is a character so confused that I doubt Smith knew what to do with him. He is another cartoon, but he’s an inconsistent cartoon; we are asked, for example, to believe that he is celibate not because of some religious abstinence belief (which would fit into what he learn of the character early on), but because he has been told that a troll lives in his girlfriend’s vagina, and it will eat his privates if he gets too close. This, I am told by fans of the movie, is one hilarious idea. Certainly Smith thought so, as he goes against logic and character to give it to us.

Yet even with jokes that bomb and plotlines that belong in Hilary Duff movie (freaking dance lessons??!!), it requires mentioning that “Clerks II” is also, quite simply, a very badly made movie. Not just in terms of Smith’s sloppy directorial style, his hackneyed script, or the faulty editing that pervades throughout. (Was the editor purposely trying to keep the music from fitting with the scene?) No, we also get stuck with acting which ranges from limp to miserable. Only Dawson pulls off a decent performance, and that’s with the most underwritten character. Smith and Jason Mewes (returning as Jay) cross the line into pure obnoxiousness, while O’Halloran and Anderson remind us why their careers never took off the way Smith’s did. (The scene in which O’Halloran kisses Schwalbach - who is Smith’s real-life wife - is hilariously bad. Neither look remotely comfortable with the idea, and it shows.) When folks like Jason Lee and Wanda Sykes show up for cameo duty, we’re reminded by comparison just how shoddy the lead performances are.

While many are welcoming Smith’s return to his roots, I’m lamenting it. “Clerks II” goes wrong with every step it takes, and ruins the good memory of a wonderful comedy along the way. This is nothing short of an unwatchable letdown, a miserably unfunny comedy, and a major disaster in the career of a once-promising filmmaker.

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