I recently received my first negative feedback; a person who said he usually enjoys my articles for Focus Arts Monthly objected strongly to my defense of Kevin Smith in September's issue. I'll stand by the article, which praises Smith's laid-back visual style and unpretentious, honest characterization. Unfortunately, Smith does little to help my argument with Clerks II, a disappointingly bland return to Leonardo, New Jersey. Here, the writer/director isn't just laid-back - he's practically asleep.
Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal Graves (a weird-looking Jeff Anderson) are now working at a Mooby's fast food restaurant after Randal accidentally burned the Quick Stop and RST Video to the ground (this is Smith's first mistake - Mooby's isn't nearly as funny as the convenience store). Dante is about to leave New Jersey and move to Florida with his overbearing girlfriend (Jennifer Swalbach). Dante and Randal are torn between the comfort of familiarity and the desire for personal growth, but Smith has little to say here - it's a sitcom-y premise that recreates the episodic structure of Clerks without capturing its endearing observational style. Aside from the pop-culture references and bestiality humor, there's little hear that bears Smith's signature; this plays more like a Kevin Smith knockoff directed by Shawn Levy. The raunchy humor here isn't transgressive, it's just pureile and dull. And the grainy black and white of the first film has been replaced by a color palette that is flat and cheap-looking; although I've always enjoyed (or at least shrugged off) Smith's tendency towards medium two-shots, this one just looks straight-to-video.
There are two strong performances in the film that actually serve to highlight how unlikeable the leads have become. Trevor Fehrman provides most of the film's sparse laughs as Elias, a Transformers-loving born-again Christian who suffers Randal's torment. Fehrman creates a character that is ridiculous yet somehow endearing, so Randal's constant insults just come off as mean-spirited and unfunny. When he bashes Lord of the Rings as "three movies of walking," even this Star Wars loyalist found the scene stupid and pointless. And Rosario Dawson is charming and luminous as Becky, the manager of Mooby's (she looks great in uniform), who quietly carries a torch for Dante. Dawson jumps into Smith's vulgar humor with such cheer that it's not only improbable to believe that she's stuck at a burger joint, it's impossible to believe that she pines for O'Halloran, who comes off here as leering and creepy. The leads are whinier and less relatable than they were in the first film, and since Smith has nothing interesting to say about their arrested development, watching them mope around for ninety minutes is an interminable affair. And aside from a terrific reference to The Silence of the Lambs, Jay and Silent Bob don't have much to do here; Smith gives Jason Mewes repeated references to his real-life drug problems, which just feels exploitative.
I fear that Smith may have cast Swalbach, his wife, as a metaphor for Jersey Girl: Dante's conflict between the desire to conform to expectations of maturity and his affection for his youth could be read as Smith's justification for returning to the same characters over and over. But even though Jersey Girl wasn't a very good film, I find that I respect it more than Clerks II - the attempt to tell a mushy story about parenthood bound to alienate his fans, for all its faults, was a genuine artistic risk. It's Clerks II that feels calculated - with every strained joke and self-conscious reference to a previous film, the movie reeks of desparation. The final scenes are actually sort of sweet, as Dante and Randall find a way to grow up without losing their identities. I hope that Smith eventually does the same.