Some things are worth waiting for. Kevin Smith became an indie icon 12 years ago when he famously sold his comic book collection to help finance the grainy, black-and-white slacker classic Clerks. The shoestring (its budget was under $27,000) saga of two gabby, ambition-free New Jersey buds, the convenience mart/video store where they mostly goofed off, and the motley crew who hung around the place was perhaps the most cost-effective comedy in film history. It not only made Smith's name; it made him rich, and introduced a cast of characters that would provide the basis for much of the movie work that was to follow. Chief among them, of course: the weed-dealing duo Jay and Silent Bob.
Clerks was a raunchy, triumphant celebration of friendship, perpetual adolescence and pop-culture obsession. Since 1994, ,Smith has made a number of pictures with considerably larger budgets but decidedly smaller payoffs for his audience. After Mallrats, Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and 2004's almost universally panned Jersey Girl, I personally questioned whether the filmmaker's best days were a decade behind him.
But there's good news -- and from a sequel! Clerks II doesn't merely represent Smith's return to his thematic and artistic roots. It's a heartening return to form.
To the strains of Talking Heads' marvelously apt "(Nothing but) Flowers," the movie's opening montage brings us up to speed on what's happened in the lives of our heroes, Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson), since we last saw them. A much shorter song would have sufficed, because relatively little has changed: The Quick Stop, which provided the setting for the original film, has been closed due to a fire (Randal left the coffee machine on overnight), so the two friends have found work behind a new counter. Their universe is now largely defined by the neighborhood Mooby's, a branch of the fictional fast-food chain first introduced in 1999's Dogma. The two are now physically in their thirties, but in almost every other respect, time has stood still. They still spend their days together performing tasks for which they're comically overqualified. They still engage in elaborate, wickedly warped conversations about things middle-aged men seldom discuss in major motion pictures. And they still know where to find Jay and Silent Bob: outside against the wall, as if the place would fall over if they went anywhere else.
Well, there has been one development of note. Dante has become engaged to a waspy, well-off blonde (Jennifer Schwalbach). Her parents have enticed the couple into relocating to Florida by offering to buy them a house and set him up with his own car-wash business. Deep inside, something is telling him to go along with all this, that it is what society expects of a man as he slouches toward 40. The film, in fact, takes place on what he has announced will be his final day at the restaurant. Dante is ambivalent.
His best friend, on the other hand, is horrified. Randal can't conceive of life without his sidekick. All the same, he insists on arranging a send-off worthy of a slacker prince. In the course of this fateful day, he sets in motion a chain of events destined to go down in film history as the most emotionally forthright, and undeniably touching, third act to involve a donkey show.
Everything you hope for in a Kevin Smith movie, and more, is here. Life choices are examined, and compelling arguments are made in favor of choosing to live as a recent high school graduate straight through to the grave. A who's who of Smith alumni (Ben Affleck, Jason Lee, etc.) turn in memorable cameos. Great debates are staged. Randal's diatribe about the superiority of Star Wars over Lord of the Rings is choice. And deliciously twisted comic moments arrive out of left field just when you least expect them.
High points include an ecstatic dance sequence set to the Jackson Five's "ABC"; a bit about invisible trolls who stand guard inside the private parts of young women; and some of the finest Jay and Silent Bob scenes ever. The chemistry between Jason Mewes and the mostly mute director has rarely been better. Even Mewes' recent stint in rehab is worked into the material; it provides the impetus for one of the movie's most hilariously surreal sequences. I don't want to spoil the surprise, so suffice it to say that Silence of the Lambs will never seem quite the same.
There is also a love story involving Dante's boss, played by Rosario Dawson, and it makes for a satisfying subplot. The heart and soul of Clerks II, however, is in the bond and deep affection the two men feel for one another. Few films have succeeded in being simultaneously so edgy and sweet-natured. And the ending is among the most perfect I've seen. With any luck, Smith will catch us up with these two check-out chums again in another 10 years or so. I'd love to find out what their futures have in store.