To: Kevin Smith
From: Scott Foundas
Re: Clerks II
Tiffs between critics and the subjects of their criticism are nothing new: 30-odd years ago, the actress Sylvia Miles dumped a plate of spaghetti on the head of then–New York magazine theater critic John Simon after enduring one of his famously harsh and personal missives. And just last year, in these very pages, Sally Potter had it out with me over my review of her Yes. But to the best of my knowledge, in the decade I’ve been writing about movies for various publications in this city, I’d never done anything to engender your ire. So imagine my surprise when I took my seat at a press screening of Clerks II last Monday morning, only to be tapped on the shoulder by a publicist and kindly, albeit firmly, asked to leave.
In truth, this teacup tempest had begun to brew the week before, when a different publicist (one I’ve known for years) phoned to coerce/threaten me into assigning someone other than myself to review your film.
“Kevin reads everything that’s written about him,” she told me, before going on to explain that apparently certain things I’d written in the past had led you to feel I had some kind of personal bias against your work. I was perplexed: True, movies are like their directors’ children, and when I reviewed your last film, the nauseatingly saccharine Jersey Girl (2004), I went so far as to say, “The blame for this cosmically self-indulgent disaster lies with Kevin Smith, who directs like a proud father who can’t stop showing you pictures of his kids. And here’s the thing: The brats are ugly.”
Still, I was hardly that film’s harshest detractor and, what’s more, I’m on record as having been a fan of yours in the past. Reviewing Chasing Amy (1997), I praised the film’s hilariously uncensored sexual dialogue and unexpected pathos. And you and I even did a long interview at the time, in which we came to the conclusion that I harbored greater affection for your much-maligned Mallrats (1995) than you did yourself. Having made these various points to said publicist in an e-mail, and having received no reply, I assumed that the dust had settled between us. Until, that is, I showed up at Monday’s screening.
Well, you pretty much know the rest of the story. After some further reflection on your part, and a few diplomatic words of intervention by our mutual friend “Fiji” John Pierson, we kissed and made up — in a strictly heterosexual way, of course — and, by Tuesday morning, I was finally sitting down to watch Clerks II. But perhaps you’ve guessed, Kevin, that I still entered that screening room with considerable trepidation, not for fear of ejection (this time, I was the only one there), but because it’s true that I haven’t cared for your last couple of pictures, and I wondered if a sequel to the no-budget gem that first put you on the map would mark a return to form or merely prove that you really can’t go home again.
Of course, Kevin, if there’s one thing your films have taught us, it’s that while you may be able to take the Jersey boy out of Jersey, you can never take Jersey . . . well, you get the idea. Though you packed your bags for L.A. years ago, I suspect your heart will always belong to Red Bank, and maybe that’s why Clerks II slips on as comfortably as a well-worn shoe. It is, I think, the best thing you’ve done in years — the funniest and the most genuine. I say this with the hope that I’m not overstating the case, since it is, at the end of the day, a movie about a couple of guys watching life go by from behind a cash register. As you yourself noted of the original Clerks (1994): “It’s certainly not Shakespeare.”
Still, this movie put a broad smile on my face, virtually from the start: a montage sequence set to the Talking Heads’ calypso-flavored “(Nothing but) Flowers,” in which you catch us up on everything that’s happened in the 12 years since we last hung out with those two knights in plaid-and-denim armor: Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson). You begin things on a tragic note: The Quick Stop and RST Video have been gutted by fire, prompting our heroes — after a brief moment of panic on Randal’s part (“Now where am I going to bring chicks to fuck when my mom’s home?”) — to seek out new employment at Mooby’s, the fictional fast-food restaurant you introduced in Dogma (1999) and later revisited in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001).
But the more things change, you seem to be saying, the more they stay the same: Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (you) still have their backs against the wall. Dante and Randal continue to stare across the counter at a barrage of imbecilic customers and old high school jerk-offs (one of them memorably named Picklefucker). Dante again finds himself torn between the affections of two unreasonably sexy women: the pert Mooby’s manager, Becky (the ineluctably charming Rosario Dawson), and the WASP-y princess Emma, who happens to be Dante’s fiancée. Strapping and blonde and perfectly proportioned, Emma is exactly the kind of girl who wouldn’t have given a guy like Dante the time of day back in high school, but who’s now been around the block enough times to know that nice guys are, well, nicer than pretty boys. And Kevin, if I’m not being too presumptuous, I would suggest it’s hardly accidental that you’ve cast your own wife, Jennifer Schwalbach, in the role. You lucky dog.
Set on Dante’s last day at Mooby’s before Emma whisks him off to married life in Florida, Clerks II is about the end of something — a slacker Iceman Cometh in a drive-thru Harry Hope’s. But it’s above all a romance, and the dialogue in the scenes between Dante and Becky, as you slowly reveal to us the depths of their relationship, is tender and wise in the way of Chasing Amy. Watching the film, I was reminded that, for all your outward irreverence, you’re a big old softie at heart, and when you’re on your game, you don’t have to work nearly so hard at reaching out and touching an audience as you did in Jersey Girl. There, you gave us straight-faced heartstrings and tears; here, you stage Dante and Becky’s climactic heart-to-heart against the backdrop of a male-on-male bestiality show, and I can’t think of many other filmmakers who could pull that off. (Actually, I’m not sure that you pull it off, but you certainly come closer than most.)
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The grandest romance in Clerks II, however, is reserved for Dante and Randal themselves, and if the latter’s third-act admission of heterosexual man-love will doubtless strike some as a self-conscious retread over Banky-Holden territory, I personally found it more affecting than anything in Brokeback Mountain. Randal is really the star attraction this time around, and the screen seems to light up extra bright whenever he’s on it, whether he’s flashing that devilish glint in his eyes or feeling the bottom drop out of his modest existence when he realizes that his one true friend in the universe may be about to disappear forever. And Jeff Anderson, well, he’s just terrific in the role — so much so that I started to wonder why he isn’t in more movies, until it dawned on me that, like the character he plays, he may be the brightest underachiever around.
Clerks II is far from perfect — I could have done without the geek debate over the relative merits of the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings trilogies, and the running conversation about “going ass to mouth” is only half as funny as Chasing Amy’s memorable discussion about going down on girls. That said, this is the umpteenth movie I’ve seen this year about guys in their 30s who aren’t quite sure what they want to do with their lives, and it’s the only one that strikes a real chord, because it’s neither an exaltation nor a condemnation of slackerdom, but rather just a sweet little fable about how sometimes the life that you think could be so much better is actually pretty damn good already. That’s a sentiment, I’d wager, as coveted by you, Kevin, as it is by Dante and Randal, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with it.
Still, I hope you won’t take offense if I close with a few words of brotherly advice, even if this is a case of the younger brother advising the older one: I said before that you’ve never really left Jersey, and for the most part I mean it as a compliment — like the original, Clerks II has a lived-in, blue-collar feel that Hollywood almost never gets right. At the same time, I can’t quite shake the feeling that you haven’t much wanted to set foot outside of your self-created View Askewniverse, even though there’s a great big Mooby’s-less world out there full of stories that could benefit from your telling. In the end credits of Clerks, you thanked Richard Linklater, Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch “for leading the way,” and 12 years later, they’re still leading and you’re still following. But for now, I take comfort in the knowledge that, in these crazy, mixed-up times of ours, Dante and Randal are still clerking, and Jay and Silent Bob are still dealing. May they live long and prosper.
CLERKS II | Written and directed by KEVIN SMITH | Produced by SCOTT MOSIER | Released by the Weinstein Company | Citywide