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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
Kevin Smith’s Clerks was a big part of the indie movie revolution of 1994. In 1994, filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino (whose 1994 film Pulp Fiction won mass critical and commercial appeal and is generally regarded as one of the best films of the 90s) and Ben Stiller (people forget what a zeitgeist Reality Bites) became huge Hollywood stars and garnered significant cults of personality. Both Stiller and Tarantino have gone on to remain incredibly culturally relevant, with both men making cult films (Death Proof, The Cable Guy) as well as big, mainstream Hollywood hits (Django Unchained, Tropic of Thunder) in the interim. Somewhere along the way, Kevin Smith got left behind.
Perhaps it was due to his slacker mentality, his inability to really grow as a director or a writer, or just sheer bad luck, but Smith has never really progressed beyond the shaggy dog director of 1994’s Clerks, an immensely funny and quotable film that nonetheless typecast director Smith for the entirety of his career, so much so that he has gone back to the well multiple times (his “View Askewniverse” as well as the sequel film Clerks 2 and the proposed Clerks 3), with somewhat diminishing returns along the way. But Clerks remains a revered, cult film – and with good reason. Despite a shaky leading performance, the film oozes personality from its supporting characters, particularly in an hilarious Jeff Andrews performance and from the lovable, goofy Jay character, played by Jason Mewes (both men were amateurs, having never acted in a professional film before Clerks).
So, What Holds Up?:
Other than Mewes’ and Andersons’ solid, hilarious performances? I think the script largely works, particularly the pop culture dissection, which in 1994 must have seemed considerably fresh. In 2014, the Internet is a massive thing, and there are countless blogs (including ours!) that serve as outlets for cultural dissection. During Clerks’ time, however, the Internet did not exist in this form yet. Heck, tabbed browsing didn’t even exist. There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram. The dialogue in Clerks, which mostly revolved around Star Wars, the daily minutiae of working a dead end job, and frank discussions on sex and various sex acts, must have been downright shocking. The first time I watched the film, which was probably around 1999 or 2000, I can remember being a bit shocked by what was coming out of the characters’ mouths. If anything, Clerks is downright dirty in the best way.
I also feel like the black-and-white aesthetic presented by Clerks greatly holds up. Upon initial viewing, I pouted, “This is in black-and-white? That sucks!” But after actually watching the film, I thought Smith’s decision to film it like that was pure genius – it just simply works. The relationship between Dante and Randall is the best one in the film. Forget about the various love interests, Dante and Randall are where it’s at. Brian O’Halloran isn’t a great actor, but he plays the role of the put-upon schmuck fairly well, and Jeff Anderson is great at driving him nuts. I love the dynamic between them that allows Randall to consistently get Dante’s goat over and over again. The characters of Jay and Silent Bob are also great, and hadn’t yet become parodies of themselves.
And What Doesn’t Hold Up?:
Holy crap, every time Dante tucks his jeans into his boots I just want to slap him in the face with a fish. That fashion faux pas gets me every time. Jay’s haircut is also awful – he looks like he should have “It’s the mid-90s” tattooed on his head. The music doesn’t hold up as well, and some of it oddly feels out of place. The studio made the choice to add early 90s grunge rock, which I like (I imagine the bulk of the money Miramax pumped into a post-production version of Clerks was spent on music rights). But some of the grunge rock on the soundtrack has aged about as well as cottage cheese, and thus dates the film immensely.
The worst part of the film to me is probably the character of Caitlin Brea, who Dante pines for throughout the entire movie. The character is under-written and not particularly well-acted either (Lisa Spoonhauer, who plays Caitlin, has only one other credit to her name). Caitlin is built up throughout the movie as Dante pines for her, but I don’t like what is done with her character. She is also given surprisingly little screen time, and is then quickly ushered out of the film without much resolution to her character (and a throw-away line from Dante doesn’t give me enough closure on their relationship).
So, What’s the Assessment?:
Ultimately, my main issue with Clerks is that it doesn’t know if it wants to be a serious look at a day in the life of two working-class New Jersey store clerks or a bawdy romantic comedy with sitcom-y trappings. This is pretty much what has also plagued Smith’s subsequent films. Mallrats is basically Clerks set in a brightly-lit shopping mall. Chasing Amy is Clerks with a lesbian character. Dogma is… well, Dogma has not aged well (ugh, those special effects). Clerks 2 is exactly what you think it is, except this time it’s in a fast food restaurant. I’m not ruling out the prospect that Clerks 3 will be good, because I actually kind of like all of these movies a little bit. But the fact remains that Smith has shown incredibly little growth as a filmmaker over the course of a twenty-year career.
I still think Clerks is a solid little comedy. I love Jeff Anderson as Randal. He is far and away the best character in the movie. He gets the funniest lines and his anarchic spirit makes him a much more interesting character than the dour lead Dante. Clerks is available streaming on Netflix and other services, and I recommend it for a look into that 1994 indie scene. It’s just too bad that Kevin Smith didn’t mature as a filmmaker and give us something with a little more depth and maybe something with a little more important to say.