Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Service industry blues

How pretty production polish spoils a cult sequel's shine

Posted By on Wed, Jul 26, 2006 at 12:00 AM

The most intriguing question surrounding Clerks II is not why Good Morning America's film crit Joel Siegel stormed out midway through a screening. This is Kevin Smith, and it's mind-boggling that Siegel, who gets paid to sit on his uptight ass and watch movies for a living, hasn't figured out by now that writer-director Smith uses taboos like urinal cakes and pisses all over them. Surely if I could sit through all of Little Man, Siegel could manage 47 more minutes of Clerks II.

What's more intriguing about the movie is this question: What would you do with a dozen years and $5 million?

Smith made the original Clerks in 1994 with $27,000 and a bunch of Jersey kids with bad hair and tight-rolled jeans. It looked like it was spliced together with duct tape and shot by a cameraman with cataracts; the actors deliver their lines with the finesse of a 6-year-old who hasn't finished Hooked on Phonics. There was little to the plot other than following a day in the lives of average guys Dante and Randal stuck behind a counter selling eggs, milk, cigarettes, videos and porn, and musing about Star Wars, sex, hockey and customers.

And yet, something about Clerks still rings true. If you'd ever held a job, you could relate. When Dante (Brian O'Halloran) bemoans, "I'm not even supposed to be here today," anyone who's taken an extra shift feels his pain. When Randal (Jeff Anderson) tells a patron that the cat's name is "Annoying Customer," he's fulfilling the daydreams of everyone who's done time in customer service. Dante and Randal may have been the poster boys for '90s slacking, but they were real guys and they were funny as hell.

With Clerks II, Smith heads back to Jersey, only this time he's fat with cash and a half-dozen movies and countless Jay Leno appearances under his belt.

The good news is that Hollywood hasn't entirely softened Smith's sense of humor, or else Siegel wouldn't have had his little snit. The filmmaker manages to represent several of the seven deadly sins. Everything you're not supposed to discuss in polite company — religion, politics, sex and The Lord of the Rings — is fair game. Smith doesn't give a flying fuck; he just takes aim. It's that raw irreverence that made the original Clerks a cult classic faster than you could say "snoochie boochies."

The bad news is that Smith as a filmmaker has matured. His storytelling and directing skills have been refined, although not mastered. He's hired people to give everything a good buff and polish. Clerks II is prettier and professional. It's in color. Rather than no-name extras, it's got cameos from big names like Wanda Sykes, Jason Lee and Ben Affleck. Actors read lines as if somebody actually rehearsed.

But $5 million worth of pretty production doesn't necessarily buy $27,000 worth of comedy.

It doesn't matter that the boys are older. It's actually great to see that Dante and Randal haven't sold out, sipping lattes and crunching numbers in a corporate office somewhere. But everything feels more carefully executed. O'Halloran plays up Dante's sad-sack lover-boy shtick with much moping and whining. Randal is almost clinical with his delivery of smartass commentary. And the song-and-dance from the ever-present Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith himself), at this point, holds few surprises.

The original was better for its simplicity, and that everything felt off-the-cuff. The plot was negligible. There was some bugaboo about Dante's love life, but mostly the point was to show the trials of two guys stuck working crappy jobs.

In the redux, Smith is now concerned with stuff like character arcs and having a plot that makes some kind of sense, even if it might involve Tijuana donkey shows. And Smith employs big, overly orchestrated gags, rather than letting rhythms of the mundane and the repartee between Dante and Randal carry the movie as in the original.

What makes it harder to take is the sentimental, almost sweetness of it all. Apparently Jersey Girl didn't knock all the cutesy out of Smith, because he puts Dante into a typical rom-com dilemma. He's engaged to Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach Smith — Kevin's wife), but really he's hot for his burger-joint boss, Becky (Rosario Dawson). Will he choose the girl he loves or the girl who can get him out of Jersey? This is supposed to be Clerks, so who really cares?

But Smith hasn't wholly abandoned his best asset — the art of banter. Clerks II has loads of satisfying but empty-calorie dialogue, including musings about whether it's ever OK to go ass-to-mouth during sex, what trilogy reigns supreme (LOTR or Star Wars), and whether jerking off or driving Go-Karts is the better method to unwind.

As much as the Joel Siegels out there hate to admit it, that's the stuff that makes a movie like Clerks memorable, and it's really the only reason any of us should have to hear from Dante or Randal again.

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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