Saturday, December 9, 2006

Clerks II

Director: Kevin Smith
Starring: Brian O' Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Rosario Dawson, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, Trevor Fehrman, Jennifer Schwalbach

Running Time: 97 min.

Rating: R
**** (out of ****)

Clerks II is easily one of the best comedies of the year, if not the past few. If anything, it proves beyond any doubt that Kevin Smith is a filmmaker who's operating a few levels above what's been expected of him. He managed to make a movie that's not only brutally hilarious, but also buries beneath it a touching coming-of-age story packed with ideas and characters to care about. More impressively, he did it all under the enormous pressure of having to sequel one of the most beloved cult films of the 90's twelve years later.

According to naysayers the movie wasn't supposed to be this good, much less the best film of Smith's career. It's hasn't been a strong year for movies and it's been an even worse one for comedies so I can't tell you what a relief it was to watch one that had me smiling throughout, knowing I was witnessing something special. From start to finish the film is pitch perfect and does everything right that most comedies always get wrong. Smith has always had a great ear for dialogue and how real people talk and act and it's never been put on better display than in Clerks II. When the credits rolled, I didn't want the movie, or my time with these characters, to end.

It's ten years later and the Jersey Quick Stop has burned down sending Dante Hicks (Brian O' Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) to work at Mooby's, a fast food burger joint run by hot manager, Becky (Rosario Dawson). It's Dante's last day as he prepares to marry Emma Bunting (Smith's own wife Jennifer Schwalbach) and move to Florida. Of course, she's completely wrong for him (or anyone for that matter) and he's really in love with commitment-phobic Becky, who's more his best friend than boss. Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith) are back and one the interesting touches Smith adds is that they're back from rehab, making reference to Mewes real-life rehab stint from drug abuse.

They also have a new character to pick on in burger flipper Elias (Trevor Fehrman), a devout Christian with a very strange explanation about his virginity and a very unhealthy obsession with Transformers and Lord of The Rings. I dare anyone to watch this movie and say they have not met someone exactly like Elias. Fehrman plays him in such a way that even though we laugh at him constantly, there's something really enduring and likable about him. He could have his own movie in a heartbeat.

In terms of humor, this film nearly mirrors the first, with the characters spending their days dissecting pop culture (an argument about how Lord of The Rings compares to Star Wars provides some of the movie's biggest laughs) and making sick sex jokes, all of which are funny. Nothing, however, is funnier than Randal's plan to throw Dante a surprise party featuring bestiality... or rather, "interspecies erotica." Only Kevin Smith could come up with such a brilliant politically correct term to describe something so vile and disgusting. Let's just say the show Randal pays for isn't exactly what they get, making for a really hysterical scene.

If Clerks II was just incredibly hilarious, I'd be satisfied. But it goes one further and not only does that, but makes an incredibly moving movie about friendship. I've never seen a writer/director balance as many elements as well in one film as Smith does here. It's really interesting what Smith does with Dante and Randal and how they learn something from each other. In their thirties now, these guys are facing a crisis. Randal wants things to stay the way they are and just goof around, but there's a strange force pulling at him and telling him he doesn't. This is evident when he's shaken up by a hilarious encounter with an old classmate (Jason Lee in a great cameo role). Dante has the opposite problem. He wants to change his situation as soon as possible. He's the responsible one, but he makes an irrational knee jerk decision wanting to marry this woman and get the hell out of New Jersey. Yet, there's a force pulling at him telling him he doesn't. That force is Becky.

The casting of Rosario Dawson was a surprise. I just couldn't picture her in Smith's "askewniverse," assuming her presence was mostly due to being a hot, big name of the moment. While that may have initially been true, she absolutely owns this movie. Owns it. From the second she appears on screen it's evident how cool and relaxed she is in the role. I believed she was a manager at a fast food joint, and more shockingly she sold me in believing her character would fall for a guy like Dante, even though on the surface it should seem impossible. The scenes they share together and the dialogue they speak feels real, like how two people would actually talk. It was a harsh reminder of how few movies do this well and how many awful romantic comedies Hollywood has vomited out to us in recent years.

There's a great scene on the roof where Dante's watching her dance and the smile on his face says everything. We get it. I'm sure they'll be those who accuse Smith of "going soft" toward the end of this movie, but he never steps over the line and the sentimentality is earned because we care about what happens to these people. Just when you think it's getting too sappy, he does too and pulls back, like in a memorable montage spoofing musicals set to the Jackson 5 that somehow strangely works in the context of the film.

Smith often gets a lot of credit for his witty dialogue, but some of the best moments of the film come when no one's talking at all and he just lets the music do the job for him. Some of that music includes The Smashing Pumpkins, Alanis and Soul Asylum. Fitting, since the first film came out in 1994. Also, big props to him for using my favorite Talking Heads song over the opening credits.

Kevin Smith has an obsessive cult-like following, which I've never felt a part of, at least until now. They gave him hell about this movie. There's a documentary on this special edition DVD, almost as long as the movie itself, where we learn he was absolutely torn up as to whether or not he should make this picture because he wanted to make sure he had something to say and do justice to the original film. He admits he was really shaken up by the negative feedback to the idea from fans on the internet. We find out in the documentary that he did face pressure from the studio to cast a big name and all the names considered to play Becky. I can't even imagine what a nightmare this movie could have become if either Sarah Silverman, Liv Tyler, Rachel Weisz or Bryce Dallas Howard had played the role. All fine actresses, but they would have been all wrong for this. Smith agreed.

Another revelation I wasn't as surprised to learn was that Smith had the first and last scene in his head for years before it even hit the page. I say I'm not surprised because the movie is bookended perfectly and it looked like both scenes were shot by someone with a very clear idea what they were trying to convey. The opening has an incredible visual and the final scene, in particular, really got to me because it ended exactly where it should have, touchingly paying tribute to the original film.

Supposedly the movie got an 8 minute standing ovation when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier in the year. If you ask me, it deserved every one of those 8 minutes. The original Clerks was an excellent first feature by a film student that changed the course of independent cinema in the 90's. This is a more mature effort by an accomplished filmmaker at a different place in his life with more things to show and prove. The script is tighter, the acting is better and it has a deeper story. Even if you haven't seen the original it makes no difference. As a stand alone movie, it's still perfect. It's fitting one of the big arguments in the film centers around Star Wars. Like The Empire Strikes Back, Clerks II is the rare sequel that tops the original.

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