CLERKS II written and directed by Kevin Smith, with Brian O'Halloran, Jeff Anderson and Rosario Dawson. 97 minutes. An Alliance Atlantis release. Opens Friday (July 21). For venues and times, see Movies, page 84. Rating: NNN
There's a very clever bit in the trailers for Clerks II, Kevin Smith's follow-up to the $27,000 film that put him on the indie It List and made him the chatty poster boy for the slacker set.
After an amusing sequence in which Smith's lovable drug-dealer alter egos Jay and Silent Bob riff on a creepy Silence Of The Lambs scene, the trailer reads, "From the director of Jersey Girl,"with the title quickly crossed out and replaced by the word "Clerks."
It's a classic Smith joke - self-deprecating, beautifully timed and completely aware of the vagaries of the pop culture marketplace. After all, nobody except Smith himself liked Jersey Girl, his romcom bomb starring 2004's tabloid couple of the moment. (Remember Bennifer?)
"I always find it's easier and more beneficial to take a shot at yourself before somebody else does,"says Smith, as relaxed and articulate as ever during a press day in Toronto.
"Jersey Girl gave people a lot of ammo, which is too bad," he adds, when I prod about the film. "I loved it and still do. I think that if I had released the movie the same way Stephen King releases a Richard Bachman book under another name, it wouldn't have been as reviled. People were reviewing it based on my previous work. It's weird when you're a victim of your own success."
That success hasn't exactly gone to his head. When Clerks II premiered at Cannes in May, earning an eight-minute standing ovation, Smith waved out at the audience wearing a tuxedo top over his signature baggy shorts and sneakers. Today, in his oversized sports jersey, shorts and checked shoes, he looks remarkably like his own Kevin Smith Inaction Figure: casual, approachable.
Ironically, it was during the making of Jersey Girl that Smith knew he wanted to return to his small-budget roots (Clerks II rang in at about $5 million). Degrassi: The Next Generation, which featured Smith in a three-episode arc last year and satisfied his lifelong desire to make out with the original's Caitlin, also proved that a sequel might not suck.
Set in the same uninspiring strip-mall-choked Jersey town as the original, Clerks II revisits Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson), who have left their jobs at a burnt-to-the-ground convenience/video store and are now working as clerks at another fine establishment, Mooby's, a cow-themed McRestaurant familiar from Smith's other films.
The tone this time around is a bit more pathetic. Slacking off is sadder in your 30s, but it's a theme that Smith sees everywhere around him.
"My parents' generation was content to get a job to support their family - they never worried about being 'creatively fulfilled,'" he says. "After watching my father go to work for 20 years at the post office every night from 11 o'clock to 7 am, not even being a letter carrier but being the guy who cancels fucking stamps, the unspoken lesson was, 'Get a job that doesn't feel like a job.'
"So our generation seems to be one that wants to play by our own rules. We'll find our dream jobs, and until then we'll work at these shit jobs.
"What happens, though, if you don't find that dream job? It totally worked out for me, but I realize that I'm more lucky than talented. Luck and timing made Clerks what it was. But there are so many people - some of my friends included - who are waiting for their ship to come in. It's like popcorn. Sometimes it pops and sometimes it just sits at the bottom of the bag."
Seeing the puffier O'Halloran and Anderson play bottom-of-the-bag guys in Clerks II is oddly poignant, especially since the pair haven't really done much acting except in their friend Smith's films.
"I dig that," says Smith, finishing off one cigarette only to light up another a few moments later. "In Clerks, the uncredited, unbilled star was the black-and-white grungy look of the film. I think in this movie the uncredited, unbilled star is the paunch that everybody shows.
"Normally when you make movies you try to make everybody look their best. There was no avoiding the fact that we had all aged and look softer and flabbier. But, hey, that's real."
Speaking of real, Smith doesn't distance himself from the film's theme of mid-life failure. He admits that he's achieved some career success, but a lot of people lecture him that after 12 years in the business he should be further along, working with bigger budgets on more ambitious projects.
"Some people say that if they were in my shoes they would have done better, and they list all these steps," he laughs. "It's easy to be an armchair agent. At a certain point I'm thinking, 'Don't you get it? This is what I do and all I've ever wanted to do - tell stories where people sit around talking for 90 minutes.' I've never had any ambitions to do anything more."
Whether you like his work or not, you have to admit that Smith knows his limitations. He was offered and turned down directing the big-screen version of The Green Hornet comic book. A script of his might still be made, but it's currently languishing at Miramax now that the Weinstein brothers are no longer there. The comic book fanatic admits that he doesn't have the best visual sense as a director, so he took on the Clerks sequel rather than attempt something beyond his grasp.
"People thought I was chickenshit because I turned it down," he says. "They said I was playing to my base and making movies for my old audience. But why is that a pejorative? Why wouldn't I want to make movies for my audience? Isn't that what any filmmaker wants?"
That audience, by the way, is fiercely loyal, and Smith stays in constant touch via his company's website, www.viewaskew.com. Rather than wait for the post-facto DVD, he posted Clerks II making-of docs on the site (also available at the video site You Tube) months before the film's opening. "The Web is as essential a component as somebody giving me money to make a movie," he says. "We've been out there since 95 and haven't left. I want to be in touch with the people who make up the audience. I love that back-and-forth, that communication."
Somewhere online you can also see Smith's 10-year-old script for Superman Lives, which remains unproduced. The fact that producer Jon Peters had problems with his script and insisted on adding details to it like a big spider and a polar bear are legendary and have even made their way onto yet another Clerks II trailer.
Smith doesn't miss a beat when I ask about the recent Superman film.
"Any time filmmakers get to make the exact movie they want to make, it's to be applauded," he says, words that could apply to his own career.
"You can't look at Superman Returns and think, 'That's a paint-by-numbers studio movie that's trying to appeal to every demographic.' It's clearly the work of one person with a distinctive vision: Bryan Singer. He had enough juice built up from the two X-Men movies to make the exact version of Superman he wanted.
"That said," he says, pausing for dramatic effect, "it would have been nice if Superman had punched something ! You've got the man of steel, but he seems more reactive than active. I mean, dude, throw a giant robot in there and let him beat the shit out of him!"
CLERKS II (Kevin Smith) Rating: NNN
Clerks II outperforms the original in terms of production values and acting, not to mention the number of amusing star cameos (Ben Affleck, Jason Lee, Wanda Sykes) that flit across the screen.
Uber-slackers Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson), now in their 30s, have graduated from their convenience/video store clerk posts to jobs at a neighbouring fast food joint managed by commitmentphobe Becky (Rosario Dawson).
Dante, who's got a thing for Becky, is engaged and about to move with his careerist fiancée to Florida, so Randal decides to throw him a raunchy going-away party involving a donkey.
That's the story, but Smith adds lots of texture with his jokey, pop-culture-saturated references and a moving subtext about underachievers. Look for an especially quiet and poignant Go-kart scene that's pure suburban poetry. Nothing will surpass the spontaneity of the original's rooftop hockey scene, but Smith comes close with a cute musical number. Say what you will about the crude jokes, but you'll be quoting them as you leave the theatre.