With “Clerks II,” Kevin Smith checks back in with the slackers from “Clerks” to find out what they’re up to a dozen years later.
You’ll be shocked to learn that Dante and Randal are still doing the exact same thing: standing around all day at their menial jobs, finding ways to avoid work, and talking. And talking and talking. They’re just doing it in color instead of black and white.
But in revisiting the characters who made him an indie darling and a cult favorite, writer-director Smith finds himself back at the top of his game, especially after his most recent offerings, the self-indulgent “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” (2001) and the soft-hearted “Jersey Girl” (2004).
“Clerks II” goes disastrously awry in the third act — almost irreparably so — but before that, when the insults are flowing and the graphic banter is crackling, the film frequently achieves a rhythm that’s hilariously infectious. (It’s OK — go ahead and give into it. There’s a 12-year-old boy inside all of us, and “Clerks II” reaches out to give him a reassuring hug.)
The sequel begins where the 1994 original left off: in grainy black-and-white at the suburban New Jersey Quick Stop where Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) have toiled away mindlessly all these years. Only the place is on fire — causing “Clerks II” to shift cleverly into color and forcing the duo to find jobs they hate somewhere else.
They end up at Mooby’s, a sort of evil, Disneyfied fast-food chain where Rosario Dawson plays the impossibly cool, sexy manager, Becky, with whom Dante shares an unlikely chemistry. Dawson is effortlessly lovely, as always, and yet fits comfortably into Smith’s twisted universe. (The filmmaker said it best when he remarked that she makes you actually believe that Becky would have sex with Dante. We’re paraphrasing here, but you get the idea.)
Also joining the crew is virginal Elias (the endearingly jumpy Trevor Fehrman), a co-worker who’s freakish even among Smith’s usual misfits and comic-book geeks. Elias finds himself drawn into some of the most protracted, heated discussions with Randal the instigator — such as, which is better? “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings”? — the kinds of debates that members of Smith’s loyal fan base surely have had themselves in the comfort of their parents’ basements.
Meanwhile, drug dealers Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith himself) stand outside the restaurant all day, just as they stood outside the convenience store. They serve as both Greek chorus and inane distraction — Jay frantically dancing and enjoying the sound of his own voice, Silent Bob chain smoking and letting his eyebrows do the talking — and provide some of the most staggeringly raunchy moments of all. (It is good, though, knowing that we’re seeing Mewes clean and sober on screen for the first time after years of drug addiction.)
There’s a plot, too, such as it is. “Clerks II” unfolds during Dante’s final day on the job before heading to Florida with his fiancee, the perky, blonde, controlling Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach, Smith’s real-life wife). Randal, who loves Dante in a totally hetero way, doubts that his best friend is truly happy with this woman; at the same time, Becky also hopes he’ll stay for her own secret reasons.
As Dante’s confusion mounts, “Clerks II” builds toward its thunderous climax. And unfortunately, we mean that literally. Smith leaps brazenly into the abyss when he has Randal throw a going-away party for Dante at the restaurant, complete with ... um ... how to phrase this? There’s a donkey, a stage, disco lights and a smoke machine. It goes too far for too long and Smith just does not know when to rein it in (if you’ll pardon the pun). Or maybe he just doesn’t care.
Smith won’t win any new converts with “Clerks II,” but he’ll satisfy the devoted core audience. And for passing fans who longed for his low-budget roots, he’ll remind you of what you stopped in for in the first place.