In Kevin Smith’s debut feature “Clerks,” way back in 1994, the indie filmmaker told a story of two workaday twentysomethings whose lives were so tragically limited that they not only revolved around retail work, but when the characters did consider life’s big questions and mysteries, their lack of personal experience also left them searching for deeper meaning in pop culture ephemera like “Star Wars.”
Smith was a young filmmaker, naive cinematically but painfully, sometimes embarrassingly earnest in his commitment to capturing the lives of foul-mouthed losers who fill their days with crass sexual humor and existential malaise. Nearly 30 years later — and 16 years after “Clerks II” found his title characters trapped in the same old rut — he’s back with “Clerks III,” a film which doesn’t plumb popular culture for the meaning of life. Instead, it searches for that depth within the original “Clerks” and Smith’s own life story.
“Clerks III” finds Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) running the convenience store together, after purchasing the old establishment at the end of “Clerks II.” Drug dealers Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) have converted the video store next door into a weed shop, and even though pot is finally legal, they still go through the motions of acting like it’s a clandestine enterprise, sneaking pre-rolls into the hands of customers while sneaking shifty-eyed glances around them, as they search for non-existent cops.
They are all, as always, trapped in a state of arrested everything. We swiftly learn that even Dante, who seemed at the end of “Clerks II” to be on the verge of becoming a family man, is all alone again, after a terrible accident took everything away from him. All is as it was, with Randal snarkily shooting barbs at their hapless super-Christian flunky Elias (Trevor Fehrman) and his own silent cohort, Blockchain (Austin Zajur, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”). Except this time, Randal’s diatribes send him to the hospital, because he’s having a massive heart attack.
Randal survives, thanks to the intervention of a very good doctor (Amy Sedaris) who just happened to be dressed like a witch because she came directly to the hospital from a costume party — one of a few holdover jokes from the short-lived “Clerks: The Animated Series” — but he realizes that when his life passed before his eyes, it made for a crappy movie. So he decides to make the most of the time he’s got left by making his own movie, and just like Kevin Smith (who doesn’t seem to exist in the “Clerks” universe), he’s going to make it about convenience-store clerks and their wacky experiences and existential crises in the midst of their boring day jobs.
As Randal and Dante go through the process of producing an independent film, fans of Smith will no doubt recognize many references to the production of the original “Clerks,” and to the life of Smith himself, who survived a heart attack in 2018. And while much of the humor in Smith’s latest film is based on self-referential jokes about the first movie, cameos from various View Askew stars past and present, and of course lots and lots of weed, it’s not nearly as successful a comedy as his former works. Because even Smith can’t quite find a way to make death funny.
This isn’t a problem with “Clerks III”: Actually, it’s the film’s greatest triumph. Smith’s approach to mortality, from Dante’s unyielding grief over the loss of his family to Randal’s mourning for what he views as his wasted life, is genuinely sad. His characters are no longer falling back on popular culture to explain their feelings. They’ve lived too much of a life to need a constant barrage of “Star Wars” references to articulate themselves. (But don’t worry, there are a few of them.) They have real pain, real grievances, real heartache.
The downside of all this emotional intensity is that, for once, this new “Clerks” movie isn’t particularly funny. It makes lots of silly jokes and some of them are mildly amusing, but the biggest chuckles in the film’s arsenal are a surprisingly offhanded reference to “All About Eve” and, thanks to Mewes’ always-enthusiastic delivery, one very loud declaration that it’s nighttime. Smith seems content to let “Clerks III” focus on the “dram” part of the word “dramedy,” and it suits his melancholic characters even though it’s only moderately entertaining.
It’s also genuinely bizarre to watch the production of “Clerks” take place in “Clerks III,” because as Smith and his director of photography Learan Kahanov (“#Horror”) recreate old scenes from the original, we’re constantly confronted with just how laissez-faire the modern indie aesthetic has become. The black-and-white cinematography of “Clerks” gave the film a grungy lo-fi quality that made it feel like a piece of outsider art. The ugly and brash colors of a typical convenience store give “Clerks III” a significantly less distinctive and intriguing appearance, which Smith wisely lampshades when Randal and his own D.P. talk about how they’re going to shoot his movie. But lampshading a problem and fixing it are two different things, and it’s hard to shake the sense that “Clerks III” is significantly less cinematic than a film Smith produced for the price of a mid-sized sedan back in the early 1990s.
The finale of “Clerks III” is genuinely heartwarming and thoughtful, with a generous application of dorky humor for flavor. Very much the Smith aesthetic. But the film’s actual conclusion, during the closing credits, is either a profound attempt to completely demolish all cinematic pretense once and for all, or it’s a shockingly lazy attempt to give the film two very different final moments instead of actually committing to a single narrative decision. Frankly, with Smith, whose loosey-goosey filmmaking approach sometimes straddles the line between charming and half-assed, it’s hard to tell.
So let’s call it like it is: “Clerks III” is serious to a minor fault and breezy to a minor fault. It’s got all the same laid-back, chill vibes cinema that Smith is well-known for, and the same immature approach to genuine maturity that he’s also known for, with a new sense of emotional severity that makes it harder to laugh than it probably should be. “Clerks III” is, if nothing else, “A Kevin Smith Film,” into which he has clearly poured his heart, his soul, his good intentions, and his disarming sense of whimsy. For better and occasionally for worse.
Lionsgate and Fathom Events will release “Clerks III” in US theaters September 13-18.