Two weeks ago, a colleague insisted that Superman Returns isn't the remake of the 1978 original, as I wrote, but a reinterpretation -- its melancholic flip side. Where the Christopher Reeve model was pop art and a cool breeze, the Brandon Routh version is heavy and solemn, weighed down by the burden of the responsibilities that come with growing up and moving on.
Maybe that's how one should also approach Kevin Smith's Clerks II -- and not because Smith wrote a script for an aborted Superman sequel, but because his new movie's a note-for-note cover of its predecessor, 1994's Clerks, the charmingly crude black-and-white heap upon which Smith built his frustratingly uneven career as a maker of cult favorites about average people leading below-average lives (with rare exception -- say, in Dogma). At times, Clerks II can't even qualify as a remake, because it's little more than a recycling effort -- like a neighborhood drive to collect aluminum cans. If the footage weren't in color this time, and if the actors reprising their roles were a little thinner, you'd swear this outing was cobbled together from outtakes.
But Smith acolytes would insist that is the point: Here we are, a decade later, and nothing has changed for Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson). The movie begins where its predecessor left off, with Dante shlepping to work at the Quick Stop in New Freakin' Jersey. Randal still works at the video store next door. They're still go-nowhere men, moved off-site only by the inferno that devours the Quick Stop during Clerks II's opening moments. But they crawl not too far from home -- only as far as Mooby's, the fast-food joint featured in other Kevin Smith films, because try as the writer-director might to escape his self-contained View Askewniverse, he can take only right turns.
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And there they stay, doing the same shit they did in the first movie -- only, somehow and inexplicably, less so. Dante, once more, is torn between two women: his fiancée, Emma (played by Smith's wife, Jennifer Schwalbach, who should never try to act again), and his boss, Becky (Rosario Dawson, who actually earned the paycheck and deserves a bonus). The former promises him an escape from New Jersey; she's ready to drive him down to Florida, where her family awaits with a new job, a new house and a new life that will likely involve fewer discussions about the etiquette of going ass to mouth and debates over which was better, the Star Wars movies or the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Becky, whose toenails Dante paints while Randal teases virgin doofus Elias (Trevor Fehrman) and offends customers with offhanded talk of porn and "porch monkeys," offers only true love and Jersey. Well, that, and she can deliver dialogue without sounding like she's reading a foreign tongue translated onto cue cards being held up three miles away.
So, yeah, even as they're going through the motions -- and even as Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) are still dealing dope in the parking lot and dancing to the beat of the boombox -- hanging over the proceedings are the melancholy musings of a filmmaker revisiting old haunts while trying to leave them behind for the promise of something different, if not something better. This is very much the kind of movie one expected from Smith after the depressing middlebrow sitcom that was Jersey Girl, in which he tried to move up and found himself smacked down by fans who wanted nothing to do with his weepy, sentimental move toward domestication. He had little choice but to go back to the Quick Stop and ride shotgun with Dante and Randal. That's what viewers wanted: another prolonged dick joke sprinkled with comic-shop small talk.
Smith's heart is in it, but it's sort of a broken heart now; Clerks II feels as though it was made by a man who needs a change but isn't permitted to make one. Part of that is his own fault: He's too erratic a writer and too flaccid a director to balance the smirky-dirty humor with the shmaltzy sensitive shit. You want to give him credit for trying, for going back home and pushing his friends out into the real world. It's such a nice thought -- especially the way Smith handles Randal, who's the star here in the same way Dante was in Clerks. Randal is still a pustule of lewd ruminations, but he can't bear the thought of Dante abandoning him, so he acts like a spurned girlfriend, unconsciously scheming to sabotage his pal's impending departure. Twelve years on, the cut-out cutup has depth and dimension.
Yet Clerks II is as clumsy and junky as the first movie, and there's no excuse for it at this late date. Smith has made too many movies that cost too much money to keep hoping the camera's in the right place or that the scene of the dude fucking the donkey's gonna work when jammed next to the prolonged exchange between Randal and Dante in which they reveal how they really feel about each other. Clerks II can't bear the strain of its amateur-hour theatrics, no matter how big its heart or how many crocodile tears it manages to squirt. The dramatic moments become melodramatic; the bawdy moments turn icky. The fans will eat it up.