"Sometimes I fell like the world has left us behind," says Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson), a lifelong conveinence store employee. His suspicions are valid; at 32, Randal and Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) have never made a serious attempt at advancing in society, preferring to jockey a register and bad-mouth customers all day. When a rival from high school who has become a dot-com millionaire enters their work place simply to gloat, something appears to snap.
Writer-director Kevin Smith’s Clerks II takes a look at the same slackers we met over a decade ago, when "I’m just taking my time after high school" was an excuse that was already running out of steam. Dante and Randal are now working at a fast food chain after their beloved Qwik Stop store burned down. Dante’s time as a minimum-wage stooge appears to be coming to an end, as his controlling fiancée Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach, coincidentally Smith’s wife) has ordered him from New Jersey to Florida, much to Randal’s horror.
The film mostly chronicles Dante’s final day at work, sullenly flipping burgers and serving the occasional customer with Randal. Added to the crew is Elias (Trevor Fehrman), a remarkably awkward teen pervert, and Becky (Rosario Dawson), the gorgeous boss who just happens to be Dante’s true love, amongst other things. And of course, the drug dealing Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) continue to harass the customers and sell drugs, despite being fresh out of rehab themselves.
While the original Clerks was a series of interesting conversations hung on a plot that functioned simply as a clothesline, Clerks II places an emphasis on story that may be disappointing to those expecting more of the same. Smith has something to say this time, and he uses his first true sequel as a vehicle for that message. At first he initially appears to be arguing that progress is the natural way of a happy life, but the message turns out to be just the opposite. The way Smith sees it, if Dante and Randal want to spend their lives as slackers doing a monkey’s job, why not?
The stance reflects Smith’s own career. After Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, he declared his View Askew series finished, and tried to move on with Jersey Girl, which had the box office impact of a roll of wet toilet paper. Clerks II represents not just a return to what Smith knows best, but a defense of that return. That the film was originally titled The Passion of the Clerks, a title that seems very appropriate once you see the film.
Gone are the easy-going black and white no-budget sensibilities of the original, in are the much less effective color and the big budget of proven profitability. There exist surprisingly few references to the original, which shows great self-restraint when considering previous View Askewniverse films. That same discipline dries up in other areas, as the film grinds to a halt at times so the characters can ride go-karts and dance to Michael Jackson.
Fans of Smith’s typically nihilistic slacker style dialogue will find much to love, though many will notice some subtle differences. Amidst long-winded arguments over Transformers, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars, there exists a hostility towards the world that goes further than mere bitterness. Before, his characters may have been angry, even mean-spirited, but here the high level of vitriol often overwhelms the humor. One conversation concerning the illicit use of a donkey reportedly caused Good Morning America critic Joel Siegel to angrily storm out of a critic’s screening. Good thing he didn’t stick around to watch the sequence concerning Dante’s going away party, which gets so repulsive Siegel might have had a heart attack.
It’s hard to recommend Clerks II. Previous experience with Smith’s films are virtually a prerequisite for enjoyment. The vulgarity excludes even more viewers, as does the fact that it never approaches Smith’s best work. But the smart-ass remarks and shamelessly geeky fanboy dialogue works for those who would enjoy it. If you have much doubt, the odds that you’ll like it are only slightly higher than the likelihood of Dante and Randal getting real jobs.
The film’s two lead characters ultimately earn the film a recommendation. Inevitably, we all know these people. They are the type of guys who shrug off suggestions of education or advancement with a pledge that one day they’ll be millionaires, even though their plans to do so are nonexistent at worst, vague at best. The victory of Dante and Randal comes not through monetary success, but honestly coming to terms with who they are and what they actually enjoy doing, the same of which might could be said for Smith. If only all the real Dantes and Randals of the world could do the same.