Like an ouroboros that has tired of sucking its own tail and moved on to another body part, Kevin Smith’s Clerks III is about as pure an exercise in self-referential self-gratification as you get on a movie screen, and if your understandable response is, “who the hell asked for this,” well, you’re just not paying attention.
More entrepreneur and raconteur than filmmaker (an assessment he might agree with), Smith knows he has enough loyal followers to justify multiple returns to nearly every well he has dug, at least those related to his “View Askewniverse.” But while some of his many spinoffs and sequels have smelled of near-desperation and little more, this one’s also personal: Inspired by the heart attack that nearly killed him in 2018, it’s a story about valuing those you love and trying to keep living until you’re dead. You know: heartwarming stuff, but with blasphemy, endless fanboy musings and jokes about fellatio.
The Bottom Line
If you haven’t been on board for decades, steer clear.
Smith actually threatened a third Clerks many years ago, suggesting it was going to be his Empire Strikes Back. God knows what that meant: Clerks II was hardly anybody’s idea of a New Hope, with the exception of star Brian O’Halloran, who had certainly never before dared to hope he’d be cast in a love story opposite Rosario Dawson. (Conveniently, we learn that Dawson’s character died right after that film’s events, which isn’t to say the actress won’t pop up somehow in this one.)
But that project floundered, with Smith starting over from scratch once his health scare offered a new perspective on sedentary middle-aged men. Here, one of our titular cash register-jockeys will suffer a heart attack of his own, and decide it’s time to do something with his life. Like make a movie with his friends. About working at the Quick Stop.
Jeff Anderson’s Randal, the snarky blond always needling O’Halloran’s beleaguered straight man Dante, long ago gave up working in the video store next door to the Quick Stop. His old shop is now a cannabis dispensary run by Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith), who prefer to pretend New Jersey hasn’t legalized their trade: They stand in front of the storefront and swap cash for product the old-fashioned way.
Their place in this universe is secure, but some of the laughs they used to get now go to another oddball duo: Trevor Fehrman’s Elias, a highlight of Clerks II, is now a devout Christian with a mute sidekick of his own, Blockchain Coltrane (Austin Zajur). In early scenes, Fehrman looks like he might be the film’s comedic saving grace. Understanding that naturalism is crazy in this context, he’s a committed weirdo who’ll play True Believer to whatever Smith’s script hands him. Selling cryptocurrency kites for Jesus, for instance. (His light fades as the movie progresses, giving him fewer lines and more visual gags, each a bit less amusing than the last.)
One day, Randal is leading Elias into a facetious debate pitting Jesus against Randal’s savior of choice (that would be Conan’s deity, Crom). Just as things are getting heated, Randal collapses and is rushed to a hospital. (When prayers don’t save him, Elias has a crisis of faith and turns to Satan.)
Randal’s surgeon is played by Amy Sedaris, who is less out of place here than she was in The Mandalorianthough her presence in that show gives this one license (as if anyone asked for it) to make The Mandalorian jokes. It’s the first or second in a predictable string of cameos, some of which demonstrate Smith’s indifference to the distinction between home movies (in which, say, your wife’s lack of acting skills might be endearing) and movies that strangers pay money to see. The cameos are fresher than a lot of the quips, though: He may sprinkle the script with topical(ish) references to crypto and Tinder, but many of the jokes here are retreads of retreads.
Randal emerges determined to do something with his life. Schooled at the video store, he figures he’s as qualified to make a movie as the next numbskull, so Clerks III enters “let’s put on a show!” mode — a massive trip down memory lane, in which Smith’s fictional nobodys turn their lives into entertainment just as he did.
Nostalgia gives way to contrived relationship drama when Dante gets irked at his diminished role in the opus Randal is making. This is the point at which those of us who hold some fond feelings for Smith as a person may be tempted to ignore iffy acting, writing and direction in the name of obvious sincerity and personal closure. On the other hand, any man who still gets to make movies after directing Yoga Hosers is already living on borrowed time, heart attacks be damned. And anyone who keeps going to see them really has no grounds to complain about how drab and uninspired they are.
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