From Ewww to Awww
Kevin Smith last made Jersey Girl, which was to represent a new direction for the helmer of the acerbic "View Askewniverse" movies. In attempting a 180-degree turn from his usual -- some would say immature -- humor involving bodily functions, sex, drugs, and geek indulgence, he showed a gentler, more earnest, and, yes, sappier side that apparently disappointed a good number of moviegoers, yours truly included. Clerks II, then, is something of a compromise -- not only is it a return to a movie world Smith said he was done with, it's also a combination of the sensibilities of the current Smith and the Smith of over a decade ago.
In a way, it appears as if Smith has caved in to pressure from fans who would like him to return to a form they miss, instead of forging on with new artistic visions. However, as awkward as Clerks II is at times, the director has at least made the right move of using the opportunity to explore what it means to have progressed -- or not progressed, as the case may be -- in the course of ten years. His 1994 surprise debut and its sequel can almost be seen as the dirtier, less romantic version of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise / Before Sunset duo. In both, youth starts out untamed -- directionless, yet exciting, each day potentially full of strange little adventures. And as the Linklater characters grow to possess many regrets from dreams and ideals unfulfilled, so too have the years flown by Smith's characters Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) without them having gone anywhere.
Except, of course, this rather pitiful undercurrent is dressed up wildly with that familiar brand of Smith comedy. Clerks will be clerks, whether in a black-and-white indie, an animated series, or a color sequel -- they still provide poor customer service, get into arguments about movies, and explore the adventurous sides of recreational sex, all while Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) do business when not just plain wasting time in front of the outlet. Yes, it's essentially a concession to cries for more after the Askewniverse closed shop the first time (after Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back), but the problem here is that it also feels like one.
Some of the comedy comes across as there just to be there, and a new pathetic character has even been created merely to have a defenseless loser around to attack (he appears to represent obnoxious real-life people Smith wishes to take his frustrations out on). A finale involving a donkey is, um, well, a little bit much. These aren't the movie's strongest points, but to give Smith credit, much of it actually does garner laughs through the sheer cheap audacity and ludicrousness of their presentations.
Much of that, though, reminds us of Smith's idea, found in nearly all his movies, that extreme (geeky? perverted? loser?) behavior comes from normal people too. And it's expressive of the movie's final thought, which says aspiring to be "normal" isn't necessarily normal nor healthy. If the Smith from Jersey Girl is showing up here, it's in two ways: first to say it's ok to acknowledge your relationships of value, and second to say there's merit in wanting to have and maintain a loving family. In Clerks II, this point is reached by suggesting there's more than one regular way of achieving this, and that family itself should be expected to take unconventional forms.
This might sound a bit warm, fuzzy, and soft, but I believe this is where Smith currently is, and it forms the surprising heart of an outwardly bawdy film. Smith can't help himself -- he has levelheaded values of trust, loyalty, family, and faith at his center, and all eccentric behavior, hobbies, interests, and play are fine and good as long as the core is intact. If he's become good at anything, it's in using his movies as a direct way of expressing his views -- his movies are some of the least disguised in agenda and message; he lays his personality out there, unmistakably. So here it is again in Clerks II, which does what it can to provide moments of "haha" and "ewww" -- but may leave a final impression of "awww."
(Released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and rated "R" for pervasive crude content including aberrant sexuality, strong language and some drug material.)
Review also posted on www.windowtothemovies.com.