Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Film Appreciation - Misery Loves Company

Cody Hamman serves up some Film Appreciation for Kevin Smith's Clerks II.

Kevin Smith first promised a sequel to his debut film Clerks in the end credits of his fourth movie Dogma, where it was said that Jay and Silent Bob would return in Clerks II: Hardly Clerkin'. But rather than make Clerks II next, he ended up making Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, which was sort of meant to be the last Jay and Silent Bob movie, the end of the View Askewniverse saga that began with Clerks and continued with Mallrats, Chasing Amy, and Dogma. He moved beyond the Askewniverse with his sixth film, Jersey Girl, which was his highest budgeted film yet at $35 million, and for a while the plan was that he would follow Jersey Girl with an even bigger movie: a cinematic revival of the classic Green Hornet property. But while writing the script and starting to prepare for the movie, Smith decided he didn't want to make a big action flick. He walked away from The Green Hornet. Someone else made a Green Hornet movie, and the script Smith wrote for his version was eventually published as a comic book.

What Smith decided he wanted to do instead of Green Hornet was a return to the Askewniverse. A sequel to Clerks. A project that had once been called Clerks II: Hardly Clerkin', was officially announced under the title The Passion of the Clerks, and ended up with the perfectly simple title of Clerks II. While looking back on the making of the first Clerks for a tenth anniversary special edition home video release, he had fallen in love with the clerks all over again and wanted to continue their story.

Getting the sequel together was tougher than I would have expected, because Jeff Anderson, who plays Randal Graves, one half of the titular clerks duo, was hesitant about making a Clerks II. I found this somewhat surprising, because Anderson had already come back to play Randal again in Jay and Silent Bob Strike, voiced the character for the tragically short-lived Clerks cartoon, and even played Randal in a hilarious 6 minute short film Smith made for The Tonight Show. That short was called The Flying Car, and was all about Randal tricking his clerks cohort Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) into saying something embarrassing, much like the car ride scene in the first Clerks. Anderson was fine with working on all of those projects, but he felt Clerks was too sacred to make a direct sequel to. When Smith first brought the idea up to him, he was only 20% on board, and remained uncertain about the whole thing all the way into production. He wasn't convinced that making Clerks II was a good idea until he saw some footage cut together on the fourth day of filming.

As Clerks II begins, Dante and Randal are still slacking through their days a decade after the first movie, still working at the Quick Stop convenience store and adjacent RTS Video, respectively. Then something happens to shock them out of their routine: Dante arrives at work one morning to find that the stores are on fire. Clerks II begins in black and white, as the first movie was, but when he sees the fire it's in color, and that is how the whole film transitions into color. It's a clever visual trick, and it was Smith's plan the entire time he had any inkling of Clerks II in his head. The sequel was always going to take Dante and Randal out of the stores. The place they end up changed along the way, though. Originally they were supposed to find jobs at a Jersey shore boardwalk. Specifically, Randal was going to be working at a gaming booth called "Shoot the Geek", in which he would have to wear a costume to play the geek that gets shot with paintball guns. This is an idea Smith would work into his next film, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, with a different character.

Instead of working at a boardwalk, in Clerks II Dante and Randal move on to working in a fast food restaurant, and it's a type of restaurant that had already been established in Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back: a Mooby's. And what do you know, the drug dealing Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith himself) have left the burnt-out stores to follow Dante and Randal over to the Mooby's, spending their days hanging around outside, continuing to sell drugs even though they themselves are now sober. Smith wrote an event from Mewes's own life into the lives of Jay and Silent Bob - they got busted for driving around with a deployed airbag and sent to rehab.

The bulk of Clerks II follows Dante and Randal through a day of work at the Mooby's, and it's a very hectic, eventful day. The day that could be Dante and Randal's last together, if all goes to plan. Dante has gotten engaged to Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach), and they're about to move to Florida, where her wealthy parents are going to gift them with a house and let Dante take over a car wash her father owns. But while Dante is excited to run off into this pre-planned life, he's also in the midst of a love triangle, like he was in the first movie. The other woman here is the manager of the Mooby's, Becky (Rosario Dawson). Dante and Becky clearly have feelings for each other, but they've only acted on that once, when they recently had drunken sex in the restaurant after hours.

As Randal points out, it is kind of odd that Dante always has two women fighting over him. But this isn't just about Dante's issues. Randal also gets his own dramatic storyline to deal with in this film. He keeps his feelings to himself, but it comes through at times that he is sad that Dante is going to be leaving him behind. These hidden emotions will lead to a major blowout by the end of the film, as there's an incredible 11 minute scene that takes place in a jail cell (like I said, it's an eventful day) and has Dante and Randal venting while Jay and Silent Bob watch.

At one point in the development, Smith thought Clerks II would be about Randal falling in love. That would be nice to see, but for the story of this film it's important that he's alone in the world. He needs Dante around. He causes Dante a lot of grief, but the guy is still his best friend.

Unfortunately for Emma, Clerks II is very much about Dante and Becky falling in love... and for a director who always making fun of his own lack of visual style, Smith was certainly thinking visually when crafting this film. You've got the fire transition to color, albeit a color that has all vibrancy sapped out of it to show how dull and drab Dante and Randal's lives are. Then Smith breaks the reality of the film to give the audience a visual representation of Dante's love for Becky with an imaginary dance sequence that takes place in full, bright color. Dante asks Becky to teach him how to dance for the wedding, and while she demonstrates dance moves we start seeing people all around the Mooby's joining in on the dance. Jay, Silent Bob, Randal, customers, they all start dancing to Jackson 5's "ABC", and then there's over thirty people having a choreographed dance in the parking lot. I was surprised to see this in a Clerks movie the first time I watched this, but I was also very happy to see it. I love the dance sequence.

In between Dante trying to decide which woman he should be with and Randal trying to deal with the fact that his friend is planning to abandon him, there are also a good amount of comedic interactions with customers and scenes of Randal being a total pain, as he tends to be. Ben Affleck (sporting his Smokin' Aces mustache) makes a quick cameo as one of the customers; at the time, he said he had to stop by the Clerks II set because it would be "too depressing" if Smith made a movie and he wasn't a part of it. So it's ironic that Affleck went on to miss thirteen years worth of Smith movies after this. Jason Lee also makes a cameo as a customer, sporting his My Name Is Earl mustache.

At one point Dante and Randal leave Mooby's, just like they briefly left the stores in the first movie. Their destination in II is the place where Randal finds comfort when he's feeling overwhelmed: a go-kart track. A location left over from that "Clerks II on the boardwalk" idea.

A major source of laughs in this movie is Dante and Randal's 19-year-old co-worker Elias, a sheltered Christian boy who is so naive and/or mentally challenged that he actually believes girls have trolls placed in their mouths and vaginas to keep them from doing anything sexual until they're 21. When Clerks II was in pre-production, Smith mentioned that Elias would be played by someone named Trevor, the film's "secret weapon." I suspected he was talking about Trevor Fehrman, who had a memorable role in Anderson's film Now You Know. I hoped he was talking about Trevor Fehrman. And I was glad when it was revealed that he was. Fehrman was awesome in Now You Know, and he's awesome in a completely different way in this film. Why he's not a frequent comedy star is beyond me.

Near the climax of Clerks, a girl accidentally had sex with a dead guy in the dark store bathroom. Clerks II has some of its own "aberrant sexuality" (as the explanation for the R rating puts it) near its climax, as Randal organizes an unconventional bachelor party for Dante in an unconventional location (right there in the Mooby's). Individual viewers can decide for themselves whether the kind of sex acts performed in this film or the accidental necrophilia of the first film are grosser, but in terms of entertainment value this scene in Clerks II tops the dead guy scene in the first Clerks.

As for the films , I would put Clerks and Clerks II on nearly equal footing. I can understand Anderson's reluctance, because making a sequel to Clerks certainly could have resulted in disaster. But that didn't happen. Clerks II is a fantastic companion to its predecessor; it allows us to check back in on Dante and Randal 10+ years later and see how they are, and I'm grateful to be able to spend time with them again. The characters are just as awesome as they were before... and Clerks II is also able to stand on its own due to the amount of heart on display here.

This isn't the cynical cash-in type of sequel. Smith had a story he wanted to tell, and the passion he had for it is evident in the finished film. Watching Clerks II is a very emotional experience for me. It makes me laugh, gives me goosebumps, and brings tears to my eyes.

When Clerks II was released in 2006, I went to the theatre to see it six times, the same amount of times I saw Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back in 2001. Every time I would sit through all of the end credits, listening to the Soul Asylum song "Frustrated Inc." (Clerks and Chasing Amy had ended with Soul Asylum songs, so it was important that Clerks II end with one as well) followed by the score composed by James L. Venable - a score that has a little bit of the Clerks cartoon music in it, a nice touch. I always sit through the end credits of Smith's movies anyway to read the special thanks and other notes he puts in there, but this time there was an added reason to stick around for the whole thing. My name was in the end credits.

MySpace was at its peak back when Clerks II was coming out, and when the Clerks II MySpace page went live it was said that the first 10,000 people to "friend" the page would get their name in the credits. I was one of those 10,000 people. 10,000 names is a lot to watch scroll by, and they went quickly, but I did manage to see my name on the big screen. When Clerks II reached home video the MySpace credits list was revised to add the names of everyone who had friended the page - 163,070 names, according to IMDb. Those names go by so fast that you have to go frame by frame to read them. But I'm still in there.

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