I fully admit that I’m a Kevin Smith fanboy. From the moment I first saw Clerks in college (one of the first DVDs I ever bought, right after Fight Club and Reservoir Dogs), I was hooked. The humor, the observations on late Gen-X/early Millennial disillusionment, the overly abundant amount of stoner jokes, they all hit me at just the right time, which is somewhat ironic as I was nearly 10 years late to the party.
The reason it stuck with me – and why I’ve been a View Askew devotee ever since – is in the way that each individual character can speak to you at a different moment depending on when you watch the film. During my college years, I wanted to be Randal so badly. When he said, “You know I’m your hero,” I wanted to answer back, “Yes, you are,” because he carried himself with an unparalleled confidence. He said what he wanted, he talked shit but could back it up with empirical fact and lived experience, and he always did so with this natural charm that somehow made him even more lovable despite being an asshole. As I got a little older and felt the need to sow those proverbial wild oats, I envisioned myself as Jay, willing to do just about anything to have a good time, trying to find that zest for life that could never be equaled, and still be rewarded for it with loyal friends and the occasional romance. A lot of the time however, I opted for the Silent Bob route, preferring to only open my mouth when I had something worthwhile to say, not because I possessed any particular wisdom, but because it was easier than being judged and shunned if I said something stupid, and even then, I fucked up on more than a few occasions.
But more and more as time went on, I saw myself in Dante, and I honestly feared that I would become him. He’s a genuine, intelligent, sweet man of talent too scared of his own shadow to ever make something of himself. He’s continually put upon, and continually complains about that fact, to the point where his ennui becomes a self-perpetuating Sisyphean endeavor. He wants something more, but he’s so afraid he’ll fail that he never tries, and thus becomes reluctantly content with the status quo, even though it kills him inside. That was me for pretty much all of my late 20s and 30s, to the point that every time I fight against my anxieties to get out of my comfort zone and take a risk in my career and personal life, there’s this tiny image in the back of my head reminding me that Dante’s fate awaits if I do nothing. Sometimes that’s still not enough to will me forward, but it’s there nonetheless.
I’ve carried these seemingly opposed mindsets with me ever since I first saw the movie, through the highs and lows of my own life, and through Smith’s career, be they films within the “Jersey” continuity or those outside of it (Red State is an alarmingly great bit of genre that far too many overlooked). It’s why I loved Clerks II almost as much as the original, because he evolved that self-loathing of your 20s into a thoughtful exploration of life’s major crossroads, where people have to decide whether or not they’re ever going to get their shit together. Regardless of how that manifests itself and what path you take, the crux was in seeing Clerks as a slice of life when there aren’t that many consequences, and Clerks II as the moment where you take responsibility for yourself. It was also a brilliant dichotomy that the first installment was largely from Dante’s point of view, while the sequel was squarely Randal’s.
As the final film in this somewhat unintended trilogy, Clerks III takes things to their most logical conclusion. It’s a treatise on the two leads as a pair rather than as individuals, and confronts both of them with the concept of their own mortality. Crucially, it does so without devolving into a trite “midlife crisis” cliché. Instead, it’s a poignant, heartfelt examination of what it means to be alive, and how little life matters if it can’t be shared. Plus there are dick and fart jokes to beat the band, presented in that uniquely humorous way that few other than Smith have been able to master.
Opening to the tune of My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to the Black Parade,” (call me a basic bitch all you like, this song has always cut me to the quick, and I want it performed at my funeral; not played, mind you, but performed) we check in on our quartet (really quintet) of slacker savants. Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) now co-own the Quick Stop and work there full-time, with the latter living in an apartment between the convenience store and the now defunct RST Video, repurposed into a marijuana dispensary run by Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith, the former of whom surprised the audience at the screening I attended to introduce the flick – geek out moment of my life right there). In a really well-edited montage that mirrors that of the first movie, we see the four living through their respective doldrums with moments of levity like rooftop hockey still bringing them happiness within their limited spheres of influence. Uber-Christian Elias (Trevor Fehrman), introduced in the second film, is still Dante and Randal’s underling/comic whipping boy, only now he’s also super into cryptocurrency and NFTs, and has recruited his own “Silent Bob” in the form of the wide-eyed “Blockchain” (Austin Zajur). The whole sequence is filled to the brim with references and callbacks to not just the Clerks series, but all of View Askew, and it eases the friendly crowd into the proceedings.
Things take a turn quickly, however, when Randal becomes short of breath and collapses in the store. Learning in the hospital that he’s in the throes of a heart attack, he has a crystallizing moment about how little he’s accomplished in his life. As such, at Dante’s supportive but non-serious suggestion, he decides to go from talking about movies to making one himself, quickly writing a script about his life working in convenience stores, which he dubs Inconvenience (a title mocked by Jay multiple times), and conscripts Dante as his producer.
Now, this is a delicate subject, and it could have easily gone off the rails. Any fan of Kevin Smith, or really just anyone with a passing awareness of him, knows that he had a near-fatal heart attack a few years ago, the same one that Randal suffers here. As such, there was a huge chance that this storyline – and the project as a whole – could have become incredibly treacly. This sort of happened with Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, but Smith was careful enough back then to ensure that his sentimentality never came off as self-indulgent or overly mawkish. He made that film as a love letter to his fans, telling us how much he appreciates us because he would have never gotten the chance had he not survived. Because of that, some of the more hasty moments in that movie were forgiven in service of the larger intent, and fans like me accepted their cinematic hug and thanked him for it.
Here, the autobiographical framing device is simply that, an inciting incident meant to drive the intentionally meta plot rather than serving as a mission statement for Smith’s autumn years. While we’re all giggling and cheering at the recreation of classic scenes, a cameo-filled montage of auditions, the return of all the non-actors who had bit parts in the original, and even a reunion with Marilyn Ghigliotti as Dante’s former paramour Veronica, Smith is focused on telling a story that’s as true to his characters as possible. In crafting his passion project, Randal becomes even more of a jerk than he was in previous films, losing sight of things spiraling out of control around him while becoming increasingly self-centered. Meanwhile, Dante has to face his own demons and triggering anxieties, not just in his day-to-day rut, but in reconciling his own trauma as it relates to Rosario Dawson’s Becky, who he fell for in the last film. Randal is consumed by his single-minded objective, but it’s Dante facing the existential purgatory that life has led him to.
In the midst of all this, we get some truly hilarious bits to keep things moving, as this is still a comedy. Elias, instantly renouncing Christianity after Randal’s episode, decides to devote himself to Satan, and as such he spends much of the film in a gut-busting progression of increasingly outlandish makeup and costuming choices (seriously, kudos to the Wardrobe and HMU departments on this front). Jay and Bob running a legal dispensary yet still handling transactions outdoors like there still might be cops watching is inspired. Randal’s preoccupation with his penis size is so on point that I’m amazed it wasn’t brought up sooner. Making a running gag out of the thieves crucified with Jesus strikes that perfect balance between faith and a sense of humor that made Dogma into Smith’s finest work.
But more importantly, there’s a sincere sense of stakes in this small story, thanks to the way O’Halloran and Anderson play off one another. We’ve delighted in their reference-heavy quips for nearly three decades, but to see them face off in purely dramatic terms is both novel and surprisingly affecting on an emotional level. The dialogue is inelegant and at times heavy-handed, but I think that’s sort of the point. These aren’t literati, they’re a couple of fuck-ups from Jersey. But that doesn’t dilute or negate their motivations. These characters have been our vicarious companions for almost 30 years, and the reason these films work is because we get to watch them grow rather than just watch them age.
This is because, whether you love his films or hate them, it can never be argued that Kevin Smith isn’t 100% earnest in his work. The movie was shot entirely on location in New Jersey, including in the original Quick Stop and RST Video stores that are still owned by the same family that once employed him when he made his original opus, because he wanted to bring everything full circle and go back home to where it all began. As the credits roll, Smith himself interjects via voiceover to muse on how the first film’s mantra of “This job would be great if it wasn’t for the fucking customers” has transformed into an inverse of itself as his raison d’être. The movie itself wouldn’t even have happened if he hadn’t taken stock of things and completely rewritten the script into its final, more honest form, to get Jeff Anderson on board to play Randal one last time.
All of this leads up to a climax that, while predictable, is no less profound, beautiful, and cathartic. This is especially true for someone like me, who dreamed of being Randal and dreaded becoming Dante. The story reminds us that, as Billy Joel once sang, “The good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” The Clerks films were always about getting some much needed perspective and being able to see the world unclouded, and this capper to the trilogy accomplishes that goal yet again. Dante is a cautionary tale, but also a paragon of loyalty and self-sacrifice. Randal has a confidence worth aspiring to, while demonstrating the limits and dangers of an unchecked id. The beauty of these films has always been about that nuanced characterization, and showing how, deep down, they’re the two best friends that anyone could ever ask for.
When he introduced the film, Mewes predicted that 90% of the audience would be crying by the end. I can’t speak for everyone else in the theatre, but this schlub sitting in the back row was certainly sobbing when it was all said and done. There are definitely more artistically and technically competent films that have come out this year, but as I mentioned with Smith’s last entry, intent has to be taken into consideration. Reboot was a loving acknowledgment of his fans after a brush with death, and in that context, it worked well. Clerks III is a declaration of thanks to his home, his friends, his family, and all those who facilitated his ability to live out his dream, filtered through his most endearing and enduring characters. And in that respect, the film is nearly perfect, and ranks among Kevin Smith’s greatest achievements.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What filmmaker’s work speaks to you better than any other’s? What the fuck are butt thieves? Let me know!