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Clerks III Review: Back Behind The Register

  • It just feels great to see all of these people again
  • It's nakedly emotional in a really honest, often beautiful way
  • Smith's script really digs deep into the core of this world and these characters
  • Some of the jokes really don't land
  • It's at times just a bit too treacly, but not in a way that kills the emotion

Kevin Smith has always been a self-referential filmmaker, even before the days when he had catchphrases and well-known characters to fall back on. Smith's film debut, "Clerks," was a nakedly honest look at his own working life, a film about feeling stuck but also feeling unsure about how to get unstuck, and while it was packed with comedic flights of fancy, it's that honesty about disillusionment and fear that made the film connect. As his career progressed, Smith's self-referentiality waxed and waned depending on the kind of work he was doing, but when he opened up about everything from romantic insecurities ("Chasing Amy") to faith ("Dogma") to the pop culture tangles of his own creation ("Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back"), he always seemed to find something special.

He finds that something special again with "Clerks III," a film that attempts to blend the from-the-hip indie sensibilities of Smith's early years ("Clerks") with the slightly cartoonish strangeness of more recent work ("Jay and Silent Bob Reboot"). That blending doesn't always work, but as is so often the cast with his body of work, when Smith leans forward and decides to get real with his audience, it all blends together into something with a genuine impact.

One last Quick Stop run

Years after the events of "Clerks II," Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randall (Jeff Anderson) are still running the Quick Stop after purchasing and refurbishing the old convenience store. Their old coworker Elias (Trevor Fehrman) is still on the job, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) are still out in front of the store, and everything's moving along at a steady workday pace. It seems that years after revitalizing their lives and their friendship by becoming small business owners, Dante and Randall are stuck in humdrum days once again.

The monotony breaks when one of Randall's classic rants turns into a heart attack, sending Dante rushing to the hospital to be by his best friend's side. With a near-death experience under his belt, Randall starts to question how he's been spending his time and comes to the conclusion that the best way to make the most of his remaining life is to take all those years of talking about movies and translate them into making a movie.

So, with Dante's help and a thrown-together cast and crew (the audition scenes are a typical Kevin Smith movie cameo fest), Randall sets out to make a film about... two guys who work in a convenience store. Yes, Randall's movie idea is basically to make "Clerks," using anecdotes from his real life to populate the film with scenes and turns of phrase. It's an idea that allows Smith to throw in plenty of knowing "yes, I'm going back to this well" winks, but as the film evolves, it becomes something more, a meditation on his life and career inspired in no small part by Kevin Smith's own serious heart attack in 2018. It's in that meditation, and the chances Smith is willing to take to pull it off, that "Clerks III" really finds itself.

Life and the movies

On a craft level, Kevin Smith has always considered himself more screenwriter than a visual stylist, and while "Clerks III" continues that tradition, there are still certain visual flourishes here that prove his maturation as a director. He plays with the self-referential quality of the film in ways that even "Clerks II" and "Jay and Silent Bob" reboot never quite reached for, inserting black-and-white and even mimicking certain camera positions from the original film that recall the scrappy energy with which the original "Clerks" managed to seduce us all.

As a writer, Smith remains nimble and witty — though his tendency toward more over-the-top comedy sometimes sets this particular film adrift. Still, even as the jokes fly, there's a sense of emotion running through even the sillier parts of "Clerks III," an awareness innate in Smith's writing that he is going back to a special, even sacred, place. After all, "Clerks II" did not spend much time in the Quick Stop. "Clerks III" relishes the ability to go back there, and to remind us that, even when the credits roll and the movie ends, the inner angst of a character doesn't go away.

It's there that O'Halloran and Anderson step in and remind us just how much we liked Dante and Randall to begin with. There's a rawness to their performances, helped along by the higher emotional stakes of this particular installment, that informs their decisions even in comedic moments, and both rise to the challenge of what is the darkest installment of "Clerks" storytelling so far. They are in it from the jump, and that creates investment, particularly when you're the kind of fan who's known and loved these characters for decades now.

As someone who basically hasn't stopped talking about his life and his work since 1994, Smith is also aware of how much he himself has known and loved these characters for decades, and he seems more aware than ever of how much of himself is still in them. Like so much of his work, "Clerks III" is at its best when Smith is willing to infuse his own, honest reactions to life, love, loss, and pain into the narrative, but it never feels like he's just lecturing from behind another person's mouth. There's an openness and a warmth to it that's perhaps more reminiscent of the original "Clerks" than anything else in his career, and while this film might not be quite as good as that one, it's that openness and warmth that ultimately makes "Clerks III" a somewhat stunning, surprisingly beautiful piece of comedy moviemaking. It might not make a Kevin Smith convert out of any new viewers, but if you've been going back to look in on Dante and Randall for years, you'll be glad you got one last trip to the Quick Stop.

"Clerks III" hits theaters on Tuesday, September 13.