Mike Grindle is a freelance culture writer with a love for film, music, and literature.
In 1994, a retail clerk made a low-budget indie film about two twenty-something "under-achievers" trying to get through a day in, well, retail. Against the odds, this irreverent film became a financial and critical success, jumpstarting the career of its director, Kevin Smith. Furthermore, it also kicked off Smith's oddball universe of slacker films and his iconic pairing alongside Jason Mewes as 'Jay and Silent Bob.'
It now seems that Clerks III, set to be released later this year, looks to bring things full circle for Smith. But what about Clerks II, the somewhat forgotten middle child of this trilogy to be? Well, amongst all the dick jokes and boundary-pushing humor is a film with a surprisingly refreshing message.
"One Semester we took Criminology, for God's sake! Criminology! Who the f*** were we studying to be: Batman?"
— Randall, Clerks II
In Clerks II, we find the first film's "heroes" Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randall (Jeff Anderson), right where we left them: working at a convenience store. Only, as Dante gets set for another day, he opens the shutters to find the store ablaze. As firetrucks arrive to put out the blaze, Randall delivers the funniest moment in the entire film, encapsulating the bizarreness that was the noughties in a single one-worded question: "Terrorists?"
The fire does little to push the pair to new heights. Instead, the now 30-somethings soon find themselves working for a fast-food chain. Dante's still hoping to escape his minimum wage lifestyle, though, and plans on moving away with his wealthy fiancé to do it. The thing is, this means leaving behind Randall. It also means turning his back on Becky (Rosario Dawson), the restaurant manager whom he's having an affair with. Of course, things only get murkier when Becky reveals she's pregnant (yikes!).
The sticking point of the film is the tension between the life Dante leads and the life he thinks he should have. And just like in the first film, Dante seems ashamed of who he is, his insecurities bolstered by the opinions of others.
He's not the only one going through existential crises, though, as even drug peddling Jay (who, alongside Silent Bob, has followed Dante and Randall to their new place of work) reflects, "Sometimes I wish I'd done more with my life than hanging out front of places selling weed and s***."
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Shame and Shamelessness
One person who seems impervious to shame is Randall, whom much of the film's comedy revolves around. It has to be said that Randall's foul-mouthed and dirty-minded nature is less endearing now that he's closer to middle age. Also, the film's cultural references and shock-humor have dated much faster than the original's. Randall and Dante's new coworker, Elias (Trevor Fehrman), who plays an over-the-top millennial geek, does little to help matters. Nevertheless, the film has its moments, and the handful of celebrity cameos, including appearances from Jason Lee and Ben Affleck, are relatively entertaining.
Thanks in part to early internet culture, the mid-noughties were the peak era for depraved humor, and it feels like Smith is trying a little too hard to shock a by then unshockable audience. The use of race tensions ("Porch-Monkey") and bestiality ("That guy's being awfully forward with that donkey.") as comedy vehicles do indeed serve to catch you off-guard, though it rarely results in anything that will make you laugh out loud.
Despite his flaws, Randall is still the most likable character. Unlike Dante, Randall knows full well who he is and doesn't care if others look down on him. Instead, he just wants to hang out with his best friend and make d*** jokes—which is kind of endearing when you think about it.
"I'm lookin' at a future that just sucks cause you aren't gonna be in it anymore. And you're not even throwin' me over for a life that means something to you. It's just a stupid, hollow existence you think you should embrace because you're getting old or something, because it's the life everyone else goes after."
— - Randall, Clerks II
The Verdict: A Film that Manages to be Obtuse, Crude and... Sweet?
Almost every stoner comedy ever conceived has a bromance at its core, but Clerks II truly wears its heart on its sleeve. The result is a strange dichotomy between the film's inherent immaturity and its moments of near-profound clarity.
Like the original film, Clerks II refuses to take its viewers on a journey. There are confrontations and obstacles aplenty, but Dante and Randal refuse to rise to them. Instead, they merely stumble their way through events in a stubborn fashion, both refusing to make changes in their lives. Resolution is, instead, something that happens to them rather than something they do. That said resolution is a return to the status quo (spoiler: they get their shop back) proves to be the anti-cinematic antidote that feels endearing in our success-obsessed culture.
Everyone loves a good college dropout, but Hollywood is less interested in those who "fail" at life well into their 30s and 40s. For all its flaws, Clerks II works because it understands that not everyone gets their "shit together" in life. Most underachieving smartasses don't suddenly wake up and turn their lives around, and few of us are destined for big things. Its solution isn't to pretend things are any different but to find solace in humor and a kind of slacker pride.
Clerks II lacks the aesthetics and humor of earlier Smith films, but if you're a fan looking for some resolution regarding the first film, Clerks II will endear itself to you.
© 2022 Mike Grindle