Director: Kevin Smith
Writer: Kevin Smith
Cast: Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Trevor Fehrman, Austin Zajur, Jason Mewes, Rosario Dawson, Kevin Smith
Premise: Following a massive heart attack, Randal enlists his friends and fellow clerks Dante, Elias, Jay, and Silent Bob to make a movie immortalizing his life at the convenience store that started it all.
Kevin Smith’s career was built on and bolstered by pop culture vulgarity and nerdy self-serious pseudo-intellectual dialogue. In a career spanning nearly three decades, his approach to dialogue and low-budget fare has been met with varying degrees of success. Now he’s once again returned to his roots with the latest installment of the Clerks franchise that kickstarted his career as an indie auteur in 1994 and continued in 2006 with the “no business being as poignant and emotional as it was” Clerks II.
Clerks III finds Randal and Dante still working at the QuickStop they co-own. The RST Video next door is now a marijuana dispensary manned by Jay and Silent Bob. After Randal suddenly has a heart attack, he resolves to make something of himself and make a movie about working in the convenience store. The plot, as slim as it is, melds two pivotal moments in Kevin Smith’s own life; the massive heart attack he had in February 2018, and the filming of his first film, Clerks, in 1993.
The existential crisis Randal experiences as a result of the heart attack is the closest Clerks III comes to being anywhere close to salvageable. But Smith shoots himself in the foot here as he doubles down consistently on Randal’s aggressive self-centeredness and lack of self-awareness. The main crux of the plot is that Randal is ignoring the importance Dante has on his life. Given that Clerks II served as a strong conclusion to the Clerks story, in which Randal and Dante recognize what their friendship means for each other, Randal’s arc in Clerks III is flooded with confusion and weak humor.
In fact, Clerks III often feels like an angry and cruel retcon of Clerks II. The places the characters find themselves in this installment represent a sweeping undoing of everything that was established and solidified in the 2006 sequel. Randal is back to being an insensitive loudmouth. Jay and Silent Bob struggle with legally selling drugs and regress to a shady facade of illegal selling. Even Elias (Trevor Fehrman) suddenly converts to Satanism for the Hell of it and experiences zero character growth from the change.
Worst of all, however, is the undoing of Dante’s massive personal strides in Clerks II. His growth in the sequel is ruthlessly and carelessly negated in this film’s opening scene with an appallingly unwarranted reveal. Smith harshly puts Dante through the wringer with not a scrap of payoff to be seen. It’s mind-boggling both in its overt cruelty as well as Smith’s refusal to treat Dante’s arc with the necessary dramatic focus that the subplot requires. It’s not even until well into the film that we learn the full extent of the horrid card fate has dealt Dante. And even then, the sequence is filled with peculiar sex jokes that clash with the tone of that specific scene.
Fans of Smith’s vulgar nerd-centric humor may find themselves disappointed in Clerks III. It’s not that there isn’t Smith’s brand of comedy in the film. On the contrary, there is plenty. However, Clerks came out in an era when nerd culture didn’t absolutely dominate the mainstream. So extended gags about the lament of innocent Death Star contractors in that film felt fun and fresh.
Clerks III doesn’t quite curtail the pop culture references nor does it hammer them home in any extreme sense. Instead, Smith chooses to rehash old scenes and bits from the original film in place of his usual eye toward what was once fringe pop culture references. Instead of debating the Death Star construction, the characters discuss how such a scene wouldn’t work in a movie now for fear of being sued by Disney. If you’re expecting that to be encased in a fun bit of subtlety and meta humor in the film, you’ll be sorely disappointed as it is delivered in as direct and lifeless as dialogue can get.
To make matters worse, Clerks III doubles and triples down on this style of lazy and tired humor. Smith utilizes the meta attempt at humor frequently but it’s never to good effect. In some instances, whole scenes from Clerks are recreated for Randal’s movie for no apparent reason other than the meta aspect. There’s also a cavalcade of high profile cameos in an audition scene that goes on for entirely too long and garners no response other than reactions of “oh that’s this actor from that thing…neat.” With a more refined sense of introspection, these elements could have been thoughtful and fun reflections on the history of Smith’s creative process and his experience in the industry. Unfortunately, it’s just egregious nostalgia with nothing underneath.
The fact that Smith has already trotted this kind of meta ground in 2008’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno, in which his experience filming Clerks is repurposed as a porn shoot in a coffee shop after hours, makes the mere existence of Clerks III in its final form all the more bewildering. With Zack and Miri, Smith told a satisfying and romantic story about two broke friends struggling to pay the bills against the backdrop of a heightened amateur porn parody production. Zack and Miri had nuance and a much more subtle homage to Clerks. Clerks III is just empty nostalgia without any nuance thanks to Smith either retreading or completely undoing character development established in the franchise’s previous, and vastly superior, entries.
There was once some charm to the idea of Smith revisiting the Clerks universe every decade or so to check in with the characters as he (and they) reach certain milestones of aging. However romantic as that notion was at the end of Clerks II, Clerks III obliterates it and ensures that Smith will likely never return to this series. Following the abysmal showing here and in 2019’s Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, which suffered the same nostalgic callback issues as Clerks III, it’s just as unlikely that this reviewer will be persuaded to give Smith’s future work much, if any, attention.