Review: Clerks II (2006)

In 1994, then (nearly) brand new director Kevin Smith gave us the world behind the cash register with his arguably brilliant albeit ultra low budget movie Clerks. Filmed at night in the very convenience store where he spent years engaged in retail drudgery, Smith gave us a bawdy and far more entertaining version of retail life than exists out there, although web sites like Not Always Right do liven up the retail world for those who inhabit or have inhabited it.

With the surprise success of Clerks, Smith cemented mainstream movie success with movies like Chasing Amy and Dogma. It was no surprise then that Smith eventually decided to make a sequel to the popular Clerks. Of course, to succeed it required most of the characters from the original movie. However, most sequels are shadows of the original movie, and thus should be avoided. I could not resist the lure of Clerks II, given how much I enjoyed the first movie. I was prepared to be disappointed.

Not so. Clerks II is not quite as good as the first movie, but nearly as good. Thus, it inhabits the narrow realm of sequels that are nearly as good as the original movie. The venue this time is not a QuikStop convenience store but a Mooby’s fast food restaurant. Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) would probably have stayed at the QuikStop indefinitely had it not inconveniently burned down a year earlier. The venue may have changed but the customers and faces have not. Instead of juggling coffee pots and sorting magazine racks, Dante now scrambles behind the counter at Mooby’s where you can enjoy drinks like a Bovine Size It. Unlike QuikStop, which is a real franchise, the cow-oriented Mooby’s chain is fictional, reflecting Smith’s deeper pockets since his impoverished 1994 directorial debut. It might as well be a QuikStop, because the coffee pot is still there and steam is always rising behind the counter somewhere.

Twelve years may have elapsed but the characters seem stuck in time and are now inconveniently in their thirties. Instead of peddling videos next door to the QuikStop, Randal (Jeff Anderson) is now haphazardly grilling burgers and working the French fry vat at Mooby’s next to Dante. Like Carmen and Winslow in the comic strip Prickly City, Dante and Randal seem doomed to inhabit their adult years together in a generally unhealthy and crass relationship. Perhaps Randal’s unhealthy presence is why Dante’s girlfriends from his convenience store days are no longer items. However, now that Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (played by director Kevin Smith) are out of prison, they have of course chosen to hang out in front of Dante’s Mooby’s as a choice place to sell drugs.

Dante cannot be without love interests, of course, or there would be no movie. In Clerks II, Dante is oddly engaged to the skinny, attractive, blond, leggy and controlling Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach Smith). She plans to move him to Florida where her wealthy family is preparing to give the new couple a house. In fact, it’s Dante’s last day at the Mooby’s, which is unearthing a lot of subterranean feelings from the whole cast of characters. Dante is about to become respectable and move out of detested New Jersey to Florida, and through Emma’s conniving, far, far away from his loser friend Randal. Yet he does not seem terribly happy at the prospect of his new and richer life, even when Emma shows up at his workplace to slide her tongue down his throat.

And what about Becky (Rosario Dawson), the acerbic manager of the Mooby’s? She is supposed to be Dante’s boss but it is clear both have the hots for each other, to the extent that one of Dante’s unofficial jobs is to paint her toenails in the privacy of her office when the morning traffic lightens. Somehow, in the course of the day, you know all these tensions will somehow resolve themselves. Since it’s a Kevin Smith movie, you know it will all happen in weird, quirky and generally obscene ways. So expect the usual variety of very odd scenes that include a donkey sex exhibition that Randal puts together as a sort of bachelor party. Also, expect strange dialogs with customers, including a Star Wars vs. Lord of the Rings discussion in front of the cash register.

As long as you can appreciate Smith’s crass humor and the endless four letter words coming out of all the characters mouths, the movie manages to hit pretty much all the right notes. We get a lot more of Jay and Silent Bob, which is good, and some terrifically funny and weird scenes, including a dance scene between Becky and Dante on the roof of the Mooby’s. So now, I need to add Clerks and Clerks II to my DVD collection. Both movies are good enough to share, at least with my select group of friends and families who can also appreciate this level of irreverence and trash humor.

It seems unlikely that there will be a Clerks III, or if such a movie were made that it can be as funny as Clerks II, but I am hoping once a decade or so Smith takes us back into the bizarrely funny world of Dante, Randal, Jay and Silent Bob.

3.2 on my four point scale. If I were to measure it on my funny bone meter, it would be even higher.

Review: Clerks (1994)

Most of us have had the experience of working retail. And most of us have had similar impressions of the experience: yech! Most of us disliked retail so much that one retail job during a lifetime was plenty. Working in the land of cubicles like Dilbert is a real step up from ringing up retail merchandise all day or stocking shelves all night. When you work retail, your work is typically grinding, boring and endlessly repetitious. The customers are vacillating and annoying idiots that like to vent their frustrations on grossly underpaid retail workers. After work, you’d celebrate Miller Time except you are paid so little you probably cannot even afford to. When you work retail, you are probably still living at home or are sharing a room in a group home somewhere. Basically, you are living in poverty, just not drawing from the welfare state.

Kevin Smith’s 1994 movie Clerks though manages to make the ubiquitous retail job seem if not quite fun then at least bearable, given it’s weird cast of characters. Clerks was Kevin Smith’s first real film of note. It was scorned by many “serious” movie reviewers but apparently is something of a cult classic for those lucky enough to have seen it. Like all of Smith’s movies, it is crass, and chalk full of expletives and sexually explicit innuendos. Yet, to those of us who did retail and spent time rubbing shoulders with the bottom twenty percent of humanity it feels authentic. I know I sure related to Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran), one of the ubiquitous retail droids behind the counters of the 7 Elevens of the world, although in his case it is a Quick Stop in Leonardo, New Jersey. His job is shitty but surprisingly he cares a bit about it, even when he is unexpectedly working sixteen-hour days because his boss goes on an impromptu vacation. He feels some responsibility even when being treated so shabbily.

Dante is basically a nice early twenties something white guy who earns a very modest wage as the assistant manager of the Quick Stop. Next door is a video rental store with a spaced out dude named Randall behind its counter. Randall must not have much to do because he spends most of his time hanging out with Dante over at his store while various customers, most of the eccentric and loser variety, cycle in and out. Sometimes the place bustles but it is often empty. That’s when a young man’s fancy turns toward his girlfriend Veronica who seems suitably devoted to him but, we quickly learn, has had three dozen lovers. Most of these she says don’t count because (sort of like Bill Clinton) fellatio is not real sex. Veronica puts out for Dante. Meanwhile, Dante learns that his ex girlfriend Caitlin is engaged. This bums Dante out, who had real feelings for Caitlin and sees Veronica as something like a second-class girlfriend. Yet, surprise! Caitlin comes by to tell him that she is not as engaged as the story makes out, and she still loves him. They arrange to go on a date later to see if sparks still fly while Dante cannot summon the nerve to tell Veronica.

All sorts of strange things happen in this store. When business gets slow, Dante and Randall go to a funeral home to pay respects to the family of a girl they knew in high school. The trip ends disastrously and hysterically. Back at the store, Dante and Randall get very creative with finding ways to have fun on the job, particularly since no one is looking. They and some friends manage to have a soccer game on the roof of their building. And what happened to that guy who needed to use the bathroom and asks for a skin magazine and fresh rolls of toilet paper? Stay tuned.

Clerks was clearly made on a shoestring by (then) no name actors. Smith was also getting his directorial moorings with this film, because it suffers from a number of minor problems, including dialog that is often spoken so quickly that it is hard to process. Smith’s handprints are all over this movie that he wrote, produced, directed and even acts in (in the role of Silent Bob, a low level doper). Surprisingly, his approach works really well. You will remember Clerks because once you see it, it is absolutely unforgettable. Much like the movie Airplane!, you may find yourself quoting dialog from it weeks later. If you are like me, you will be laughing hysterically through much of the movie. In fact, it inhabits a spot among the top dozen funniest movies I have ever seen.

Smith has done a number of other movies that are similar in style, two of which are notable and I have seen. These include Dogma and Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Having seen Clerks, I must now rent Clerks II made ten years later and hope it is as good. I may need to get my own DVD of the movie for my collection as well as see everything Kevin Smith wrote or directed, because his sense of humor is scarily similar to mine.

Clerks is as good as a low budget cheap humor movie can get. Rent it. 3.4 on my four-point scale.

Review: Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Are you easily offended? If so skip Zack and Miri Make a Porno, which is now playing at your local theater. There is so much over the top swearing in this movie that even sailors might legitimately take offense. Practically every other word is an expletive. And it’s not just the S word and the F words that are repeatedly uttered, but very clinical but crude sexual terms and phrases that populate sex magazines like Penthouse Forum Variations.

Then there is the subject of the movie itself, which is ostensibly about the filming of a really bad XXX pornographic movie. The nudity in this movie is not nearly as offensive as its language, although you do get some brief shots of full frontal male and female nudity, as well as a fair amount of screen time of buxom women with fake boobs going braless. Yeah, sensitive people like devout Mormons and Roman Catholics will definitely want to skip this flick.

Nor are any of the characters in this movie particularly likeable. However, almost all of the characters are memorable. The movie centers on two longtime platonic friends Zack Brown (Seth Rogan) and his fellow cohabiter Miriam Linky (Elizabeth Banks). Zack and Miri are pals whose relationship stretches back to childhood. They have spent so much of their lives being pals that the notion of them as lovers is inconceivable, even though both have oversized sex drives. Zack in particular obviously never came within a hundred miles of a charm school. He treats Miri like a frat brother even though she just happens to be blonde and drop dead gorgeous.

Neither is great with remembering to do financially responsible things like pay the rent on time. Yet somehow, they seem to struggle through mediocre lives at their near nadir. Zack makes his living as a cappuccino guy at a local strip mall in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. Starbucks it ain’t, because everyone in the shop including the owner spend most of their time cursing each other, even in front of their customers who seem bizarrely inured to their swearing. Zack and Miri share a wreck of a car and inhabit an unattractive brownstone apartment in an ugly part of Monroeville. Thanksgiving is approaching. For some reason Thanksgiving is also the date of their tenth anniversary high school reunion. Despite having had their water and electricity abruptly cut off, they both rush off to the reunion. Zack arrives and gets busy crudely propositioning former female classmates while Miri makes a beeline for her high school crush (played by Brandon Routh), who she shamelessly propositions before she discovers he happens to be a very successful gay porn star.

Doubtless, their encounter with Bobby inspired Zack’s idea to make a porno movie as a way to escape their financial condition. With little money, they are getting desperate and are reduced to making bonfires in their living room in an old trash bin to keep warm. Both agree that when they make the movie they will do a sex scene together, which is their contribution to the seamier aspect of this endeavor. They quickly put together a cast of dubious, troubled but generally hot looking people from the Pittsburgh area that have experience showing their privates on camera or in public. One of their cohorts is the real life ex porno actress Traci Lords (appearing here as “Bubbles”).

If you have an appreciation for crude humor like the kind you find in classic bawdy movies like Animal House or more recently, Borat, this patently offensive movie will be right up your alley. That is because this movie (aside from rising offense meters right through the roof) is also frequently hilarious. This movie is definitely not art, but it is damned funny. It is also unexpectedly touching at odd moments.

If there were annual Academy Awards for best performance of a crude, rude and socially unacceptable character, there would be plenty to choose from in this movie, with Seth Rogen’s portrayal of Zack being the likeliest pick. This is the sort of movie that you expect John Waters to have directed. Instead, it was written and directed by Kevin Smith, a mostly unknown artist who has done a variety of work acting, writing and directing movies and television over the years.

It is also, surprisingly enough, a romantic comedy. That’s right, it’s hard to discern at first among all the expletives but at its core this movie is really a quirky comedic romance. In reality both Zack and Miri do love each other, they just don’t know it and haven’t a clue how to move forward in their enduring but loveless relationship. Making a bad pornographic movie turns out to be an unlikely catalyst where they discover not kinky sex but something far more surprising: real love. Few couples deserve each other more than Zack and Miri.

In short, if you have the stomach for this kind of movie, you will not be disappointed. This is impossible to rate, but it is a fun though cheaply made movie with many hilarious and memorable characters. Certain scenes will have you laughing uproariously days later.

By the way, make sure you stick around until the credits end.