Clerks III is far from a perfect film. Absolutely drenched in masturbatory nostalgia and teeming with timely Marvel references, it milks the last drop of creative potential these nearly 30-year-old characters are capable of providing. Yet, somehow, these marked setbacks don’t completely bog the film down. There’s no precise reason why writer/director/editor Kevin Smith’s second revisit to the 1994 debut that catapulted his career is effective at all. Yet for longtime fans of Clerks and its 2006 sequel Clerks II, there are undeniably deft kernels of narrative, even if they’re only able to operate in a clustered, overly romanticized niche of nerdy cinema.
Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randall (Jeff Anderson) still find themselves behind the cash register, 16 years later, at the Quick Stop convenience store in Leonardo, New Jersey. Despite ending Clerks II with their de facto ownership of the previously incinerated business, they still operate as the film’s title suggests: As front-facing customer service workers fed up with their jobs. The prolonged commitment to the bit from the lead actors is commendable (if noticeably stiff), but nonetheless feels misplaced considering the slew of administrative tasks the duo must have on their plates.
Apparently, the stress of assuming a perpetual slacker lifestyle (combined with one too many fast food orders) causes Randall to suffer a heart attack, which the doctor dubs a “widow-maker” coronary due to the high percentage of patients who succumb to the illness. With only a 20% shot at survival, Randall manages to make it through. Dismayed at how little he has to show for his nearly 50 years of life, he ropes Dante into a project that will finally make his meager existence seem worthwhile: Making a film about their experiences working at the Quick Stop, using the store itself as the principal shooting location.
Of course, the duo is remaking Clerks almost beat for beat, with a few sprinklings of Clerks II thrown in for good measure. There are allusions to shooting the film in black and white, filming during off-hours and behind-the-scenes recreations of scenes from the 1994 film. Of course, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith, far too chatty in this role) are there, as is former Mooby’s fast food employee Elias (Trevor Fehrman). Surprisingly, Dante’s girlfriend from the original film, Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti, still smoothly charismatic), shows up, as do several former Smith collaborators in various cameos (namely Ben Affleck and Justin Long) and other random celebrities (Fred Armisen, Sarah Michelle Gellar, the Impractical Jokers). Thankfully, these appearances appear in rapid-fire succession, preventing the film from devolving into 100 minutes of “guess who the director is friends with?”
There’s no denying that this premise lacks the drive that makes Clerks II feel both fresh and rooted in the original film’s anti-work ethos. Smith is clearly far too removed from the actual concept of working a day job to add any new insights. Instead, the film is preoccupied with retroactive gratitude for the fact that he took the initial risk of making Clerks in the first place. Even moreso, it’s an ode to Smith’s adoration for his family (wife Jennifer Schwalbach reprises her Clerks II role), something that the film’s protagonists yearn for in vastly different ways. After having his own near-fatal heart attack in 2018, Smith recognized that he had more than a fair share to be thankful for. Rather than taking this newfound joie de vivre and channeling it into, say, an original story premise or halfway ambitious filmmaking, Smith instead expresses himself artistically the only way he now knows how: Playing it safe with characters that his fanbase will forever identify with and relate to.
It’s true that Smith’s work hasn’t historically gone over well with critics. It’s equally true that the director is thin-skinned when it comes to these criticisms, allowing any and all backlash to further unmoor him from the prospect of taking cinematic risks. His films with original premises—Mallrats, Jersey Girl, Tusk—were mercilessly derided by critics, while Zack and Miri Make a Porno did fine critically, but bombed commercially. All of these relative let-downs deeply troubled Smith, who regressed further into his established, acclaimed characters in order to guarantee that his die-hard fans remain loyal and become increasingly difficult to disappoint. Perplexingly, Smith still managed to squeeze more content out of these supposed “failures,” with the reviled Tusk spin-off Yoga Hosers and a planned sequel to Mallrats currently on the docket.
The thing about being a filmmaker with a so-called cult following, however, is that critical and commercial success is not the end all be all of fulfilling filmmaking. With the immediate success of his first film, Smith never had to confront disappointment until there was far too much already expected of him. Instead of taking these negative reviews on the chin and continuing to make bold, divisive art (Chasing Amy, Dogma), he decided to stagnate.
To be fair, Clerks III has the distinction of being one of the best films Smith has made in many, many years. It is too sentimental and cloyingly self-satisfied, but it also stays true to certain qualities of the director that are charmingly admirable. The film is saturated with New Jersey pride, from opening with the entirety of My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to the Black Parade” to the suburban poetry of an NJ Transit commuter train racing behind Dante during a particularly emotional moment. Though most of his early films are equally rooted in the geography of the Garden State (Monmouth County, specifically), this is the first film since Clerks that Smith shot entirely in Jersey. This homecoming is palpable, and for those who share the same origins as Smith, it’s hard not to get swept up in the gesture.
Furthermore, the film has a touch of what Kevin Smith does best: Mining his lived experiences to make art that unravels his own existential neuroses. Though Clerks III doesn’t have nearly as much bite as Clerks, Chasing Amy or Dogma—and it’s undoubtedly still slick with recent Smith sensibilities, which favors incessant narrative re-hashing and self-serving nostalgia—it feels like the director’s attempt to shift back into that practice. While the forthcoming Mallrats sequel doesn’t sound like a promising vehicle for Smith to strengthen his greatest storytelling reflex, there’s still a sliver of hope that the director’s knack for cinematic introspection isn’t completely lost. That is, if he can get over his glory days and strive for something more audacious.
Director: Kevin Smith
Writer: Kevin Smith
Stars: Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Trevor Fehrman, Jason Mewes, Rosario Dawson, Kevin Smith, Austin Zajur
Release Date: September 13, 2022
Natalia Keogan is Filmmaker Magazine’s web editor, and regularly contributes freelance film reviews here at Paste. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Knife Magazine, SlashFilm and Daily Grindhouse, among others. She lives in Queens with her large orange cat. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan