Rated R, 98 min. Directed by Kevin Smith. Starring Brian O'Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Rosario Dawson, Trevor Fehrman, Jennifer Schwalbach Smith, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, Zak Charles Knutson.
Clerks II will find Kevin Smith's detractors saying that the filmmaker simply regurgitates the past, while his loyal fan base will applaud his return to the tried and true. Either way, Smith recovers his solid footing with this sequel, after stumbling in epic fashion with his last couple of films, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Jersey Girl. Twelve years have passed since we left counter clerks Dante Hicks (O'Halloran) and Randal Graves (Anderson) at the New Jersey Quick Stop and next-door video store. Their thoughts and conversations are still as raunchy and witty as they were when they were in their 20s, and their aspirations are just as absent as they were a decade ago, yet now their contentment is a little sadder to observe. They've moved on from working at the Quick Stop to Mooby's, the themed fast-food joint whose lurking presence has been referenced in previous Askewniverse films (so named after Smith's production company View Askew). Not even the shift in working environment comes of their own volition – as the film's opening gag so brilliantly demonstrates. However, fate has landed the compliant Dante with a bossy fiancée, who's convinced him to move from Jersey to Florida, get married, and run one of her father's car washes. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Dante is about to head south because it's so unbelievable that this beautiful babe actually wants him and also because it just seems like the appropriate thing to do. Then, Dante's final day at Mooby's turns out to be event-packed and life-changing â€“ not least because of the presence of temporary Mooby's manager Becky (Dawson). Dawson is a knock-out in this movie as she challenges Dante, as well as the entire audience, to fall completely in love with her. Her performance is so breezy and seemingly effortless that she almost single-handedly elevates the quality of Smith's movie, which is predominantly performed by his usual ragged repertory corps. Another newcomer, Fehrman as Mooby's virginal employee, is also a standout as he argues with Randal the virtues of The Lord of the Rings trilogy versus the Star Wars cycle and soils his naivete with the company he keeps at Mooby's. Although the added charms of Dawson and Fehrman burnish the rudimentary acting skills of O'Halloran and Anderson, there is little that can be done about Schwalbach Smith as Dante's fiancée Emma other than to point out to the filmmaker that it's rarely a good idea to cast your nonprofessional spouse in a leading role in your movie. (Smith's daughter also makes a brief appearance in Clerks II.) Jay (Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) also return as the pot-dealing duo that's permanently parked outside the store, and Mewes, following a stint in rehab, has never been sharper or funnier. Cameos from Askewniverse regulars Jason Lee, Ben Affleck, and Ethan Suplee, as well as a comic interlude with Wanda Sykes and Earthquake, provide welcome moments. Smith's filmmaking technique has matured a bit, along with his characters; however, the liveliness of the film's dance sequence set to the Jackson 5's "ABC" may reveal one of Smith's hidden talents. Randal and Dante, despite approaching middle age, remain as profane and scatological as ever – if not more so. (The fact that Clerks II, which contains vivid scenes of "interspecies erotica" among other affronts, earned Smith his only uncontested R rating from the MPAA says more about the mysteriously shifting standards of that agency than it does about Smith.) Extended riffs on impolite subjects abound, and even Randal finds a cause to believe in when he decides to reclaim the validity of a certain racial slur. Shrewd music selections also buoy the movie and help compensate for some of its more gratuitous moments (I'm talking about the Go-kart sequence here). All in all, Clerks II finds Smith and his heroes at the precipice of maturity and moving ahead with cautious baby steps. (See p.51 of this week's Screens section for an interview with Kevin Smith.)
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