It won't surprise fans of "Clerks" to know that even now, 12 years later, Dante and Randal are still working their same dead-end jobs at a convenience store and a video store. What surprises our slacker heroes, at the outset of "Clerks II," is that they show up to work one day and find their stores on fire.
"Clerks II" is Kevin Smith's attempt to regain the glory he hasn't had since, um, "Clerks I." (OK, maybe "Chasing Amy.") It's a good attempt, too. It smells only slightly of desperation and smells mostly like the raucous, verbose comedy that made "Clerks" a vulgar treat all those years ago. There are remnants of some of the bad habits Smith has picked up in the meantime, too, but more on that later.
With their old jobs in flames, Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) find employment at Mooby's, a McDonald's-style fast food joint that is unpopular enough to give them plenty of time to stand around and talk. Dante is engaged to a dull woman named Emma (Jennifer Schwalback Smith, the director's wife) and is about to move to Florida, yet is drawn to Mooby's manager Becky (Rosario Dawson), too. Randal, ever the cynical potty-mouthed pop-culture sponge, doesn't want to be left behind in New Jersey (who would?) but is happy for his friend. That is to say, he experiences the emotion that for him constitutes "happy," which for most of us is more like "dyspeptic."
What of Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith), the offensive stoners who used to stand outside the convenience store? After a stint of court-ordered rehab, they're back to selling pot and have moved their base of operations to Mooby's.
Things are more or less the same as we left them, in other words, and it's surprising to see how much has happened since 1994 that needs to be discussed by Dante and Randal. The Internet, for one thing: The Internet seems like it was MADE for "Clerks"-style minutiae-dissection; it's hard to believe it didn't exist when the first film was made. (OK, it existed, but you know what I mean.) The "Star Wars" "special editions" and prequels have come and gone, and so has "Lord of the Rings." There's going to be a "Transformers" movie, which delights fellow Mooby's employee and whipping boy Elias (Trevor Fehrman), a naive Christian and a regular target of Randal's abuse.
As in the first film, Randal has the best lines and the most outrageous "it's funny because it's true" diatribes. He hated the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, for example, because all they are is nine hours of people walking. ("Even the TREES walked in those movies.") He's defensive about the "Star Wars" prequels. He has a fantastic rant about racism and proudly declares he's going to take back the term "porch monkey" as a non-racist term of endearment. He also has some very questionable ideas about how to throw Dante a going-away party.
Unfortunately, the generic syrupy tendencies that killed Smith's "Jersey Girl" ooze into "Clerks II" now and then, too. The most unbelievably clichéd is when Dante confesses to Becky that he doesn't know how to dance at his wedding and so she gives him lessons on the rooftop. That it turns into an exuberant musical number set to the Jackson Five's "ABC" doesn't excuse its triteness.
The film's ending is also needlessly sappy. We LIKE these characters, yes, because they're funny. But I think Smith is overstating it if he thinks we care about them enough to endure lengthy non-comedic interludes with them. So put the violins away and make with the funny, monkey boy.
And for the most part, that's what he does. O'Halloran and Anderson still aren't what you'd call "actors," and what goes on here is irredeemably vulgar. But when it's on, it's really on: sharp, funny and geeky, just like you remember.