Kevin Smith Returns To His Joyously Puerile Debut and Grows Up
"I said [to Brian O'Halloran] `Dude, I'm thinking about doing Clerks II,'" Kevin Smith says, recalling the conversation he had with the star of his breakthrough movie about doing a sequel. "And he goes, `The cartoon?' And I said, `No, live action.' And he goes, `Oh...I think the cartoon would be more fun.'"
Smith's gravelly monotone breaks into a rock slide of self-deprecating laughter. "Jeff [Anderson] was even worse," he says. "For him, he was like, `I dunno why, but people seem to like that first Clerks for whatever reason. Why would you want to fuck with that? What if we make a terrible movie? And they go back and retroactively hate on the first one?' I understand, because I've had feelings like that. So I said, `Let me write the script, and then we can discuss it. If you don't like it, then we won't do it.'"
Nowadays, Smith is doing interviews in a cushy suite at the Georgetown Ritz Carlton, but 13 years ago on weekends and evenings he was filming Clerks, a 16-mm cheapie made for less than an in-state bachelor's degree that might have remained a private triumph had it not timed perfectly with the Quentin Tarantino-fueled scramble for more independent movies. Picked up by Miramax and released in 1994 at the height of the indie tsunami, the cynical, crude, minimally staged, and maximally dialogued day-in-the-hellish-life of Gen-X wage slaves Dante (O'Halloran) and Randal (Anderson) gained a cult following among the similarly disenfranchised and loquacious. Its lo-fi shtick hasn't aged well, but its dialogue still rings with bitter truisms such as "This job would be great if it wasn't for the fucking customers." The sequel could have just been more of the same, but Smith has figured how to revisit his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a real, heartfelt way.
Not much has changed in Randal and Dante's suburban New Jersey, except the Quick Mart/video store that employed both slackers has burned down. (Randal: "I left the coffee pot on again, didn't I?") Now the guys are slaving at the local Mooby's fast-food joint, fielding inane questions from tragically naive Jesus freak co-worker Elias (Trevor Fehrman), and adulterating the cola with urinal ice for customers they don't like. It'd be utterly unbearable if it weren't for the woman Dante loves--not his shrill fiancée, Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach, Smith's real-life wife), but his co-worker Becky (Rosario Dawson) with her clunky emo glasses, do-me feminism, patience for hijinks, and incandescent smile. ("She's the goods, man." Smith says of Dawson. "I would cast that chick in everything.")
But a revisitation of Clerks wouldn't be complete without the inclusion of Jay and Silent Bob, the omnipresent loitering Greek chorus of uninhibited trickster Jay (played by Smith's longtime friend Jason Mewes) and the aptly named Silent Bob (Smith). They appear this time as if conjured out of the ether, or at least the New Jersey smog, moshing like mad outside the Mooby's and pontificating on such profundities as "Sometimes I wish I'd done a little more with my life than hanging out in front of places."
Smith's previous movie, Jersey Girl, was his first in a decade not to include Jay and Silent Bob, partly out of Smith's inability to find where the burlesque characters fit into the sentimental narrative, but also because of Mewes' inability to participate. The neglected child of a heroin addict mother (now deceased from AIDS), Mewes avoided drugs as a teenager but very quickly plummeted into hard-core addiction after the 1995 release of Mallrats. What followed, as recounted in Smith's wrenching blog memoir "Me and My Shadow," was eight years of escapades, frustrations, and terrors familiar to anyone with a loved one struggling with chemical dependency. Smith was there for Mewes, still casting him in his movies--even though he'd nod out during takes--still lending him money, even bribing him to stay clean with promises of leading roles, all to no avail. After a stint of homelessness, a missing-person scare, and several abortive rehab attempts, Mewes is, so far, three years sober and now living with Smith and family in California. Smith has made no bones about his deep and abiding "hetero love" for Mewes. A picture of Smith, wife, daughter, and Mewes posted on Smith's web site is captioned "Me, the wife, and my two kids."
Which may be the impetus for Clerks II's surprisingly tender third act. Up until the 70-minute mark it's all the raunchy, garrulous fun of the first--nice to see again, but to what end? But after a cataclysmic lapse in judgment--no spoilers, but farm animals are involved--Randal and Dante end up spending the night in jail and Clerks II elevates itself above snarky gross-out comedy. In jail the incorrigibly abrasive Randal swallows his pride and speaks possibly the most shocking statement in any of Smith's movies--that he values Dante, more than anyone could ever guess, and can't imagine a happier existence than hanging out at a marginal job for the rest of his life, as long as he's with his best friend.
Smith has an explanation for Randal's seemingly out-of-character declaration of love. "Randal's the character who occurs to me as the guy who will argue anything into the ground and reach out to ridiculous points just to prove his point," he says. "In that jail scene he's back against the wall, for him, what feels like the last debate he'll ever have with his friend--this time more serious than something like fucking Star Wars. He becomes an adult at that moment. He stops being the wiseass joke machine and reveals a heretofore hidden depth."
But there's more going on in that scene, because Smith staged the shot with Jay and Silent Bob standing nearby. Why are they needed? Could it be that that scene is Smith's valentine to Mewes, that Randal's plea to Dante is really the director's wishes for his comrade, his muse, his platonic soul mate--stay healthy, stay well, let's always hang out and be best buds together, because I value you more than any friend I've ever known?
The cigarette freezes midway to the mouth for a moment as Smith's face softens noticeably with the realization. "I hadn't thought about that," he admits. "Really, it comes down to something as simple as this scene is so touchy-feely I better have Jay and Silent Bob there to say something and pop the pin in the balloon." Sure enough, Jay makes the usual "faggot" cracks to make sure no one thinks we're watching Brokeback Quick Stop. But there's no denying the power of the extra layer of meaning.
"My relationship with Jason--I don't know [if] something as subtextual as that idea would wash over him," Smith says. "He would never notice it. Number one, I'm just not talented or smart enough to think about doing that. Number two, he would never get it." He pauses. "But that's really sweet. And I'm going to tell him from now on. Watch that scene, dude. That's all about us."
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