As a Generation X’er, Kevin Smith and I have something of a tempestuous relationship. I saw Clerks at a special early screening, when no one knew who this guy from New Jersey was, and I sat down to it having no idea what the movie was about. When it was over it felt like I had discovered the voice of my generation, much like sitting down and hearing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time.
Dante, Randal, Veronica, Caitlin, Jay, Silent Bob – I felt like I knew these people intimately. The conversations they had felt like conversations I had with my friends – and not just the pop culture, Star Wars references, either. There was a brutal honesty to the dialogue – friends talk like this when they don’t have a filter and hold nothing back. We joked about sex, and drugs, and our malaise – so much so that our failures in our twenties started to feel like successes in our 30s and 40s.
You would think, over the course of time, that Clerks would become dated and even a little embarrassing, but funny thing about Clerks – it’s still a timeless movie. These are feelings and journeys that we all take, wondering whether we can find that special thing that gives our lives meaning.
I don’t know how Clerks is with other people, but to me, it gave a voice to all those emotions and thoughts I had about where I was at that moment, and watching it now isn’t just nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, but a snapshot in time that feels universal. I felt like Smith and I were walking down the same road.
Clerks II has our characters a bit older but not so much wiser, and again, I fell right into that movie because it felt like a mirror to my own life. If there’s a constant in the Clerks films, it’s the sense that a turn was missed somewhere, that our quietly desperate lives would have played out differently had we had the courage to make the hard choices.
When Clerks II came out, Kevin Smith was at something of a crossroads in his own professional life, trying to decide whether he would step out of his comfort zone and make the so-called marquee films, or if he wanted to continue to tell intimate stories about his life and friends. Smith chose the latter (with some interesting sidesteps here and there) but Clerks II, again, manages to capture a moment in time that feels poignant, even if it’s not to the level of the first film. And while Smith may have strayed from the path here and there, it still felt like Smith and I were going in the same direction.
Then, Kevin Smith had his well-publicized heart attack, and did a major reassessment of his life, as people would naturally tend to do at such a moment. Born from that moment comes Clerks III, but unlike the first two films, I didn’t feel a kinship with this one. In fact, it felt like at some point between the second film and this one, the road that Smith was on radically diverged from my own.
I can appreciate how Smith mined his personal life to inform the characters and the story of Clerks III, but he’s been doing that his entire career – in fact, he’s made movies about moviemaking before, like in Zack and Miri Make a Porno. This time it doesn’t feel genuine. Believe me when I say I really wanted to fall into this movie, as I fell into the others, but Smith keeps undercutting his own experiences and emotion for cheap laughs and “Member When” moments that keep referencing the first film.
Clerks III is probably about ten years too late, especially with the story it wants to tell. Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) still own the Quick Stop Groceries, still playing hockey on the roof, still going through the motions of their lives. Dante, especially, seems stuck – his girlfriend Becky (Rosario Dawson) was killed by a drunk driver while carrying his child, and fifteen years later, Dante is still mourning her, his life in limbo.
Randal is still his sidekick, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) are still selling weed next door (couched in a legitimate CBD store), and things are going the way they always have. Even Elias (Trevor Fehrman), their buddy from Mooby’s, still works there. But one day, Randal suffers a massive heart attack, one that almost kills him. So Randal decides to stop talking about movies, and to go ahead and make one.
Clerks III is full of reverence for the first film, to the point of recreating shots and performances. In a world of legacy sequels, Clerks III feels like the ultimate legacy sequel – let’s just make the first film again, this time with the actors as older, wouldn’t that be funny?
There are moments, fleeting ones, where we can see the hungry Kevin Smith in between the scenes where Clerks III cynically tries to recapture lightning in a bottle, and while I can respect the motives and the emotion behind it, the whole project feels like when Family Guy repeats pop culture jokes that have vastly outlived their shelf life.
Further, the film requires some emotional heavy lifting that O’Halloran and Anderson simply can’t do. I respect the work they’ve done in the previous films, but this time around there’s a subtlety and a sensitivity that is required that O’Halloran and Anderson just can’t reach. One moment that is supposed to be heartbreaking becomes laughable, and not in a good way.
Dante is a man who has suffered great loss and has carried that weight for almost fifteen years, but O’Halloran is unable to show us his pain in a satisfying, cathartic way. I’m trying not to disparage them as actors – the material here needed a steady, sure, sensitive touch and Smith cannot provide that and his actors cannot get to that place where we can believe it.
Anderson’s Randal, similarly, is trying to show us moments of grace, but when Anderson earnestly gives us an emotional moment, he can’t sell it. It doesn’t feel genuine. It feels like these scenes happen because they’re supposed to happen in the progression of the film, but they never feel earned.
Smith’s own work as Silent Bob here is a lot of fun – Bob takes over the camerawork and gets really strict about it, and it’s funny to watch. Rosario Dawson returns as Becky, as Dante struggles to overcome his grief, and Dawson can reach those places in her performance that O’Halloran and Anderson cannot.
I even enjoyed the return of Fehrman’s Elias, a born-again Christian who decides to full on devote his life to Satan when Randal has his heart attack. It felt like those three, in their performances, understood what the assignment was. But it’s not enough to make the film work.
Throw in a very silly, cynical attempt to sell NFTs, and Clerks III doesn’t feel like a movie that Smith was compelled to make as much as a movie built to sell product. Clerks and Clerks II, for all their shagginess, came from a real place and a real emotional need to exist. They aren’t the most professionally made films, but they felt and still feel genuine.
Clerks III does not feel genuine. I know that it comes from a real place, as Smith has injected so much of his own life and his own path into these movies, but it doesn’t feel like it’s honest. Even a last-minute plot twist feels more calculated to evoke a reaction than any genuine cathartic moment.
I wanted to love Clerks III, as I still love the first two. But after more than thirty years making movies, it feels like Kevin Smith has run out of things to say, and that’s a shame.
CLERKS III REVIEW SCORE: 4 OUT OF 10
Clerks III was rated R for pervasive language, crude sexual material, and drug content by the MPA. The film will screen in more than 700 U.S. movie theaters from Tuesday, September 13th through Sunday, September 18th.
The screening will take place at 7:00 p.m. local time all nights with a look behind the scenes with Kevin Smith and the cast of the film.