Kevin Smith is another one of those filmmakers who seems to pay a surprising amount of mind to what his critics say about him. He’s known for locking certain writers out of screenings, and publicly ripped into Good Morning America critic Joel Siegel for verbalizing his displeasure as he stormed out midway through a press preview of Clerks II a few days before its opening. (The altercation might have made Smith feel better, but he came across as terribly childish.) Now maybe he knows there’s no such thing as bad publicity, maybe he’s just got excessively thin skin, or maybe he’s just really stressed out about the performance of his new movie — a return to the indie-fabulous New Jersey slacker milieu he hit paydirt with more than 10 years ago, when Clerks played at the Angelika for what felt like a full year.
Things change. Back then, the Angelika wasn’t a chain and the Weinstein company was still called Miramax. On the evidence of Clerks II, Smith himself has done some changing. There’s still some of the same nerd banter, some of the same shock-value sex talk, and there’s still the Jay and Silent Bob schtick. But there’s even more of the earlier film’s anxiety about dead-end careers, and maybe it says something about the Hollywoodization of Kevin Smith that he’s gone from regarding a job as cashier as something you’re sentenced to (the infamous original ending of Clerks depicted not-even-supposed-to-be-at-work-that-day Dante getting casually gunned down by a robber) to something aspirational — assuming you figure out a way to take financial ownership of the cash-register keys your fingers are drumming against all day long. Dante spends this film weighing the prospect of the easy life in Florida, working a cushy job provided for him by his fiance’s daddy, against his roots in suburban Jersey. (Crucially, Rosario Dawson also wants to fuck him, and she lives in Jersey, which makes his eventual choice a little easier.)
So Smith’s wearing his heart on his sleeve this time around, and I don’t blame him. It’s been kind of a rough 10 years for him, after the general acclaim that greeted Chasing Amy dissipated to be replaced by the abortive struggle to get Superman Returns off the ground and the debacle that was Jersey Girl. He takes the film’s best-friends-forever theme so seriously that Dante’s buddy Randall gets a long, heartfelt monologue on the subject during the final reel. Hardcore Clerksheads may well find this moving. I didn’t. The duds-to-gags ratio is way too high and the general aesthetic (visual and verbal) way too crummy for my taste — I couldn’t recommend it in good conscience as more than distraction or time-filler. But I laughed out loud here and there, and I was really grateful for the presence of Dawson, who knows her way around a movie camera.