Having launched his wobbly, weird career with the ultra-low-budget Clerks in 1994, Kevin Smith comes back full circle with a third bite at the cherry, a more lushly produced package than the trilogy’s originator but with the same old scrappy, scattershot mix of gags about adolescent genitalia and bodily fluids, geeky pop-culture references, and natural comic timing. Like the junk food that the central characters sell in their convenience store, it’s a strangely moreish brew that you enjoy but feel faintly guilty about consuming, like nachos with cheese-flavoured sauce or a blue slushy ice drink.
Smith has dabbled in making more conventional features (Chasing Amy, Dogma), done standup comedy, podcasting and owned a bricks-and-mortar comic book store, but he knows that the Clerks franchise will always be his legacy. That means there’s a swagger here that’s perfectly balanced with self-deprecation, as expressed through the banter of sock-puppet alter egos Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson). Still working the cash register at the same suburban New Jersey convenience store where they started (although they now co-own it), Dante and Randal are starting to wonder where it all went, whatever it was, and why they are such a pair of sad sacks, frittering away time with hockey games on the roof and conversational quartets with other pairs of characters such as Christian (later satanist) counterparts Elias (Trevor Fehrman) and Blockchain Coltrane (Austin Zajur), or the notorious Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith himself).
When Randal has a heart attack but survives, thanks to doctoring by Amy Sedaris’s on-call physician, he decides to make a film about himself and Dante working in the store, creating jobs for all their friends. In one argument with a visitor to the store, Randal is called a “two-bit strip-mall Soderbergh” – to which he replies: “I see myself more as retail’s Richard Linklater.” Smith knows that those epithets also sum him up just right: he doesn’t have the aforementioned film-makers’ range, and really strains when trying to pull off anything semi-serious, but his one-liners have an excellent batting average. In between the endless banter about Star Wars and other movies, properly famous people including Ben Affleck, Rosario Dawson (reprising her role from Clerks II), and many others wander through, joining a cast that also includes Smith’s real-life wife Jennifer Schwalbach Smith and daughter Harley Quinn Smith, contributing to the sprawling family-reunion vibe of the whole thing.
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