Like the classic horror villain who won’t stay dead, the clerks of Clerks have suited up once more in the blue-and-yellow garb of the Quick Stop in suburban New Jersey. Twenty-eight years have passed since Kevin Smith introduced the characters in his low-budget indie debut, and their station in life is pretty much the same.
Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) now co-own the convenience store rather that punch its clock, but their quality of life is still drained by the sickly fluorescence, the eccentric customers, the lock on the storefront shutters that’s still gummed up with Wrigley’s finest. “I’m not even supposed to be here today,” went Dante’s recurring riposte from the original Clerks. Ah, the days when escape was still possible, if infrequent. These days, the Quick Stop is a bardo of eternal stasis, a place where time has frozen and where ambition goes to die.
Clerks III is a comedy, of course — at least nominally — so we’re not supposed to ponder too existentially on the soul-devouring mire in which our not-so-intrepid protagonists continue to flounder. They still survive the drudgery by bantering about pop-culture minutiae and exchanging profanity-laden insults from the Don Rickles discard pile, their writer-director still exhibiting infantile glee at the freedom to say dirty things.
Even when Randal collapses from a heart attack on the floor of the shop, and is surgically revived by a team of kooky sitcom doctors, the action is as shallow as ever, a crass inciting incident to defibrillate the movie’s plot: Randal, having confronted his own demise, will finally do something with his life. He will make a movie about his decades of clerkdom, playing himself in the film and filling it with stories from Retail Hell. “Who’d want to watch that?” comments one character upon hearing Randal’s idea. It takes everything in the cast’s power not to wink at the camera.
And so the characters in Clerks III essentially embark on filming Clerks, allowing Smith to indulge in a gnomic rabbit hole of callbacks and inside jokes from the good old days. His character, Silent Bob, is even enlisted by Randal as his cinematographer, allowing Smith to wield the camera in the movie-within-the-movie, and to insist on shooting in black-and-white. Meta, meet tiresome.
As if to convince us that his screenplay wasn’t preserved in amber for the past couple of decades, Smith peppers the script with references to Tinder and The Mandalorian and ghosting and Wawa, all of which, like most of this comedy’s witless dialogue, dies on the vine. The addition of a laugh track would be, for Smith if not for his audience, a small mercy.
But it’s not the wilting humor of Clerks III that’s the movie’s cringe-iest element; it’s the saccharine core that is most embarrassing. Dante, it turns out, never got to settle into a contented family life, despite successfully proposing to his girlfriend Becky (Rosario Dawson) at the end of Clerks II, because she conveniently died soon after the events of that film. In a truly execrable scene in Clerks III, Dante visits her gravesite, and she materializes in front of it solely to provide her ex-fiancée with an eschatological pep talk. “Live while you can —l ove while you can. Dream bigger,” she offers, as if auditioning for a voice-over in a pharmaceutical commercial. Needless to say, Clerks III fails the Bechdel test miserably; the few women with speaking roles exist only to prop up the movie’s man-children.
The mawkish piano music underlying that scene reveals Smith to be something worse than a hack filmmaker with an anonymous style: He’s become a rank sentimentalist as well, a claim at which the Nineties renegade version of Kevin Smith would justifiably scoff. The final scenes of Clerks III, which take the movie’s initial flirtations with mortality more seriously, can be touching in spite of themselves. But mostly, I was thankful for what appears to be a finality to this overextended franchise.
I suspect Smith would argue that movies this masturbatory and superfluous are for the fans, not the critics. As someone who used to be in the former camp and now lives in the latter one, I couldn’t agree more.
CLERKS III. Director: Kevin Smith; Cast: Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Trevor Fehrman, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, Rosario Dawson; Distributor: Lionsgate; Rated R; Playing in theaters through Sept. 18 only