Kevin Smith broke out in a big way when “Clerks” debuted in 1994. His black-and-white comedy about two slacker convenience store employees was filmed on a shoestring budget but was filled with so much heart and clever dialogue that it turned Smith into an indie cinema darling. Since then, you could argue that the filmmaker has been chasing that high, trying to recapture the magic of his original film, with decidedly mixed (sometimes terrible) results. Even when he returned to the “Clerks” franchise for a sequel back in 2006, the resulting film felt more like a “Hey, remember this?!” cash grab than a sincere return to his roots. Apparently, it took a brush with death in his personal life to bring Kevin Smith full circle with “Clerks III,” a film that harkens back to the filmmaker’s indie roots with a comedy chockful of sincerity and surprising maturity.
“Clerks III,” tells the story of Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randall (Jeff Anderson), the same two convenience store employees from the 1994 original (and the subpar 2006 sequel), as they come to terms with being middle-aged men working at a dead-end job with no real future in sight. Their comfy slacker routine gets upended when Randall suffers a major heart attack that could have ended his life. From there, the film fanatic vows to do something big with his remaining days and decides to make a movie about his life as a clerk.
Yes, this is a meta film about the two characters from “Clerks” making their own version of “Clerks.” And while that is a premise that could generate a well-deserved eye-roll, there’s actually another wrinkle to this story that makes it even more meta. Because Kevin Smith suffered a major heart attack and almost died back in 2018. He changed his lifestyle, got healthy, and is seemingly doing better than ever. But that real-life, death-defying scare gave him the inspiration to return to the world of “Clerks” to make a film about a character suffering a similar heart attack which inspired him to make a film about being a clerk. Meta on top of meta. But thanks to newfound maturity on the part of Smith, it mostly works.
Much like the original “Clerks” was a milestone moment in the life of Kevin Smith, “Clerks III” feels like the beginning of a new era of the filmmaker’s career. Clearly, he has something to say about the fragility of life, and the filmmaker’s finally willing to trust that his audience will be able to sit through an emotional scene without undercutting it with a dick joke. In his previous films, Smith uses his humor like a crutch, always there to rescue him if he’s concerned that a scene is getting too heavy or he doesn’t trust his own writing. However, in “Clerks III,” there are multiple scenes where he asks the audience to sit and experience real, honest emotions. And the moments where he inserts humor in those scenes are more natural and never detract from the message. Much like the original “Clerks,” you can feel Kevin Smith talking through these characters and working out his own issues in a way that we arguably haven’t seen in decades.
To help deliver that emotion, Smith leans heavily on his original stars, O’Halloran and Anderson. And nearly 30 years after the original film, the duo has stepped up to the challenge and delivered two mature performances that still feel familiar and “Clerks”-y. O’Halloran, in particular, is asked to do some truly heavy lifting, as we learn more about the tragedy that has shaped Dante’s life in recent years. No, he’s not the next Daniel Day-Lewis, but O’Halloran digs deep in a couple of scenes that will likely bring tears to some audience members’ eyes. Anderson, on the other hand, isn’t asked to do nearly as much, but he steps into Randall’s shoes so effortlessly, once again, providing that much-needed counterbalance to Dante’s curmudgeonly attitude.
That said, as much as Kevin Smith’s passion is palpable in each frame of this film, “Clerks III” has some serious flaws. The filmmaker would probably agree that the cinematography and direction are lacking. There’s nothing egregiously bad, but everything feels very low effort. This has been a problem for Smith since the beginning of his career, and it continues to plague his films today. Smith has always relied on the dialogue and characters to overshadow any filmmaking flaws, and for the most part, that sleight of hand works in “Clerks III.” And, as you might expect, there are plenty of celebrity cameos, as we’ve seen time after time in the “Clerks”/“Jay and Silent Bob” franchises. As per usual, these cameos are silly and gratuitous, but at least this time, they don’t derail the entire film and are limited to one fairly quick scene. Again, another example of Smith showing a bit of newfound restraint.
However, the biggest issue with the new film comes down to the characters Elias (Trevor Fehrman) and Blockchain Coltrane (Austin Zajur). Clearly, Smith is trying to create his new Jay and Silent Bob duo with these characters, but they just don’t work on any level. They’re unfunny, and the performances are cartoonish in a way that makes Jay and Silent Bob seem austere by comparison. They are one-note characters with a lame storyline and painted in ridiculous makeup for 90% of the film. It’s honestly surprising just how involved in the story these two characters are. Smith should have left these characters out of the film entirely.
While it’s not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, “Clerks III” is an achievement for Smith and definitive proof that the filmmaker is maturing. After nearly 30 years and a near-death experience, Kevin Smith has returned to his roots to deliver a film about middle age and the tragedy that sometimes shows up in everyday life while still taking time for the odd nerd monologue and a rooftop hockey game. It’s the only “Clerks” sequel that needed to get made and proof that a film nerd from Jersey might have some relevant things to say nearly 30 years after making his debut. [B-]
“Clerks III” arrives on September 13.