ReView Askew: Clerks II (2006)

After Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Kevin Smith was ready to walk away from his Askewniverse and try something new. His next film was Jersey Girl, starring Ben Affleck, a recent widower who has to deal with raising his daughter alone after his wife (Jennifer Lopez) dies in childbirth. A new father at the time, this was clearly inspired by Smith’s own experiences with parenthood. As I was getting into Kevin Smith movies in high school, I watched this one too, and didn’t really care for it. From what I recall, it felt like just a nondescript dramedy, with Smith’s unique hallmark writing touches either dulled or not present at all. It even ends with Affleck racing through traffic to get to his daughter’s school play, one of the biggest cliches in the book. The reaction was not great. It barely grossed its budget (making it a bomb, considering marketing is typically double that), and critics were less than kind to it. Some of the blame for the audience rejection of the film was laid on “Bennifer,” and the general public’s exhaustion of the endless media coverage of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez’s relationship. They only dated for two years, but it seemed like the two of them were absolutely everywhere at the time. A year prior, they starred together in the infamous box office disaster Gigli, and finally officially split up after Jersey Girl finished shooting. Smith even reduced Lopez’s part in editing in response to Gigli‘s failure, but it didn’t really affect much. Affleck was kind of in the doldrums through a good part of the 2000s, until revitalizing his career as a writer/director with the likes of Gone Baby Gone and The Town.

Most likely the deepest cut of all for Smith in the fallout of Jersey Girl was reaction from his fan base, who were largely not pleased. It seems understandable on the surface; while Smith was a husband and new father, a huge chunk of his fans were still younger teens and twenty-somethings, so a drama about having a kid was going to be a tough sell for them, let alone a PG-13 movie with very little of the stuff they love from his previous works. Smith was in a tough position. He had “officially” concluded the Askewniverse, but returning to his fan-favorite characters seemed like a wise financial move. He had considered doing a Clerks sequel for a while, but what triggered it for him was the “Snowball Effect” documentary about the making of Clerks, shot for the 10th anniversary deluxe DVD set, which came out around the same time as Jersey Girl. Shooting interview footage for the piece further emphasized to Smith just how much his premiere film meant to him, and enticed him to return to that world and continue Dante and Randal’s adventures. So from that, we got Clerks II, a sequel fans had been waiting for over a decade since the original. As for me, I don’t remember exactly when I first watched Clerks, but it couldn’t have been more than a year before the follow-up came out, and even in that short amount of time being a Smith fan, I was psyched. I remember liking both movies pretty equally, maybe even giving a slighter edge to Clerks II, but that might have just been from the novelty of it being a brand new movie. While mostly enjoyable in its own right, Clerks II unavoidably sits in the shadow of the original, ultimately feeling safer and more formulaic than its transgressive predecessor.

The movie opens in black-and-white with Dante arriving at the Quick Stop, as he opens the shutters to reveal the whole store is on fire, acting as a great transition as we shift into color (we get a nice reverse angle from inside the store as Dante and the exterior slowly gain their color.) So right away, Clerks II opens by blowing a hole through the potentially hopeful open-ended conclusion of the original, with the idea that Dante might actually take something meaningful from his eventful Saturday shift and make some sort of change in his life. But as we see from the beginning, he and Randal continued working at Quick Stop and RST for a good decade, only stopping when the businesses were literally incinerated. But that’s kind of the necessary evil with sequels; your audience is free to interpret the ending of the original movie and the future of its characters any way they wish, but a follow-up will inevitably run up against that head canon. It sets the movie up as being a failure-to-launch story, one that’s even more of a bummer concept-wise than the original. For two twenty-somethings to be stuck in dead-end jobs is one thing, but these guys are nearing their mid-thirties, so there’s this ever-present tinge of sadness to this movie.

Things definitely feel more chipper to start with, though, as the opening credits of Dante and Randal’s drive to work is set to “(Nothing But) Flowers” by the Talking Heads, a much bouncier number than the self-titled Clerks song by Love Among Freaks which opened that film. As the lyrics paint a picture of a newly pure world free of gross capitalism, we drive by the very symbols of such in the forms of Pizza Hut and McDonald’s, stewing the whole sequence in irony. The song also ends up punctuating a great moment when the car stops in front of the still boarded up Quick Stop, accompanied with the lyrics, “Years ago, I was an angry young man,” punctuating just how much time has passed since the events of the first movie. The scene also greatly sets up the very ending, with Randal’s non-answer of whether he misses working there. Finally our two heroes arrive at their new place of employment: Mooby’s, the Askewniverse fast food chain introduced in Dogma. They open up and start cooking with a series of “action” shots, similar to the opening of the original Clerks where Dante is prepping at the start of the day at the Quick Stop. It’s a pretty solid opening, immediately shaking up the Clerks world but then bouncing back to familiar territory in a natural way.

Jay and Silent Bob relocated from Quick Stop to Mooby’s too, of course, gravitating wherever Dante and Randal roam, like two parasites they just can’t shake. They’re still dealing, but mirroring Jason Mewes’s latest sobriety, they’ve gone straight themselves. Their first scene interacting with their first two customers is pretty great, with it becoming almost like a meta commentary on Jay and Bob themselves, as one of them is a returning buyer (a Kevin Smith true believer, if you will), but his buddy isn’t as charmed by these wacky characters (“I like them, man, they’re funny.” “They’re fucking stupid.”) Jay and Bob are obviously more present in this movie than the original, but they’re woven in and out of the day’s events very well, always appearing on the fringes for little appropriate gags as the main characters deal with their shit, at least until the end. We also meet Elias, a wholly innocent nineteen-year-old kid and fellow Mooby’s “funployee.” As the new breed of clerk in this world, he also represents the next generation of pop culture consumer, rambling on about message board wars, the upcoming live-action Transformers movie (what a time capsule this feels like when he brought that up), and a whole scene devoted to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, of which Randal is none too pleased about (“There’s only one ‘Return,’ okay? And it ain’t of ‘The King,’ it’s over ‘the Jedi.'”) He rakes Elias through the coals for all this, but it all highlights how far he (and Dante, to an extent) have fallen out of touch by the modern world, feeling like they’ve been left behind (Randal expresses this himself later in the film.)

The movie does its best to recreate the tone of the original film, of guys just shooting the shit and killing time during a low-stakes, go-nowhere job. The Dante/Randal dynamic is back, but definitely feels a bit more exaggerated and heightened, almost like their Clerks: The Animated Series personas seeped in a bit. Dante’s still the ultimate straight man, just trying to get through what we learn is his last day before leaving New Jersey, while Randal feels a little more aggressive in his banter, and in his treatment of Elias. I’m more a fan of his subdued, almost zen-like laid-back persona of the original, but he still feels like Randal, and it also story-sense for him to be more volatile as he’s bottling up his emotions over Dante leaving. There’s also a greater open pervasion to Randal that I don’t really care for here. In Clerks, he read X-rated magazines all day and rented transexual pornography, but it feels a far cry more innocent than in the sequel, where he’s openly creeping on high school girls and talking about letting Elias smell his fingers after fisting someone’s “kid sister.” Despite it being a big centerpiece of the movie in how fucked up it is, Randal hiring the donkey show at the end (more on that later) feels the most akin to how he was in the original, one of undiscriminating sexual curiosity (“What’s the point in having an Internet connection if you’re not using it to look at weird, fucked up pictures of sexual acts you’ll never have yourself?”)

Early in the film, Dante gets a most welcome visit from his fiancee Emma, who jumps the Mooby’s counter and starts aggressively making out with him (much to the exasperation of Ben Affleck, making a brief cameo as a customer.) He and Emma are heading out the following morning for their big move to Florida, where her father is giving him a job at one of the car washes he owns, as well as a house for the two of them as a wedding gift. Dante is a bit overwhelmed about all this generosity, not feeling the most comfortable with basically being handed a new job and a new life. But it’s something he’s never really been able to create for himself on his own, so he figures he can’t question what he perceives as a golden opportunity that fell into his lap. His vocal affection for Emma starts getting chipped away over the film, and it starts to get pretty sad when he pretty much admits that they’re incompatible (“I figure she’ll eventually get me. Emma’s smart, happy, a good person, and for some strange reason, she loves me. What am I supposed to do, pass up on that because I have a few stupid doubts and some jitter?”) Clerks portrayed Dante as a man terrified of making his own difficult decisions, and this is the ultimate example of that: entering a marriage where he’ll basically have no real say but he can just coast through his new life is incredibly appealing to that insecure, afraid part of his brain.

Emma is played by Jennifer Schwalbach, Kevin Smith’s wife back again for an actually substantial, non-exploitative role this time around (although she does flash Randal at one point, revealing her incredibly sheer bra, her nipples practically exposed. And we do get an awful lot of footage of her and Dante making out. But hey, no kink-shaming here, Kevin Smith, whatever floats you and your lady’s boat…) Schwalbach is actually pretty good in the role; donning a rictus grin and an ostentatious “MRS. HICKS” T-shirt, she quickly establishes herself as the driving force of the relationship. She appears later in the film with finished wedding invitations, which perplexes Dante, as he thought they were going to wait until they were in Florida to pick a date. Emma quickly dismisses him in a cutesy way (“That is so cute, him’s thinking again, huh?”), before hugging him to “make up” for it. No secret is made that we as an audience should dislike Emma. She hates New Jersey, she hates Randal, and she is more or less taking advantage of Dante’s doormat personality to nab herself a doting and forever unquestioning husband. Even if he is in desperate need of a spine, we like Dante, and seeing him in this relationship is immediately bristling.

This brings us to Becky, Dante and Randal’s boss at Mooby’s. When she arrives at work, it’s not long before she and Dante retreat to the backroom where he paints her toenails (a regular occurrence, according to her) as the two of them shoot the shit about Dante leaving and how he feels about things. Dante affirms multiple times that she and Becky are just friends, and while I’m a big proponent of showcasing platonic male-female relationships in media, this is clearly bullshit just from seeing them interact for a mere minute (also how the fuck could you be “just friends” with the absolute smoke show that is Rosario Dawson.) We learn more about Becky: she took this job as a fallback to help support her sick uncle, but a few months quickly turned into a few years, with her feeling stuck in a job she hates, which doesn’t sound too dissimilar to Dante and Randal’s situations. Dawson is always a likable presence on screen, and she integrates into the Askewniverse very well, able to burn through Kevin Smith’s extensive dialogue like a champ, filling her character with a lot of emotion. We find out she and Dante had sex one night after work a few weeks back, something they are hesitant to talk about, but quick to laugh about when they finally do (“I regret that it was on the prep station table.” “Yeah, you regret it. You weren’t the one who got mayo in your cooch.”) She clearly likes Dante, needing to be diplomatic in talking about Emma, but still tries to be as honest as possible about their less-than-stellar relationship, but knows there’s not much she can do about them or her own feelings. Dante slowly finds himself more enamored by Becky as the film progresses, until she reveals to him that she’s pregnant, throwing a huge wrench into his future plans.

Dante being in a love triangle is obviously a repeated plot element from the original Clerks (which Randal directly calls out, “You’re the most hideous fucking CHUD I ever met, and you always have a pair of girls fighting over you!”) but it’s handled a lot more simplistically here. In Clerks, we meet Veronica, Dante’s girlfriend, a positive, caring presence in his life. We also hear about Caitlin, who Dante is sort-of emotionally cheating with, and we’re made to be highly distrustful of her as Randal discusses her lengthy past of sleeping with other guys behind Dante’s back. But then when we finally see Caitlin and hear her end of things, we see she’s grown past that characterization, becoming a lot more sympathetic and nuanced. The neat thing is that there’s no “right” choice for Dante, as both women represent a slightly different path for him. In Clerks II, the scales are more imbalanced with Dante’s two new potential matches. There’s a little more thematically going on with them, but the characters end up coming across a little cliched: Emma is the controlling bitch Dante feels stuck with, and Becky is the “cool” chick, the “just friends” girl who was there all along. Once Becky pulls up to Mooby’s and she and Dante smile and wave at each other, you basically can guess what the ensuing dynamics are gonna be. It’s not a negative against the film, but it does make this feel more like a typical mainstream comedy, thus making it less interesting. Also, for me, having Schwalbach on one hand and Dawson on the other… Dante’s big choice isn’t something I would spend more than half a second mulling over. Sorry, Mrs. Smith. I’m sure you’re a wonderful woman, but… come on.

Midway into the film, Randal’s shift of cracking wise about everyone and everything comes screeching to a halt when he and Dante’s old high school classmate Lance Dowds walks into the restaurant (played by Jason Lee, doing his old buddy a solid by showing up for a day of filming.) Lance became an overnight millionaire after he sold his search engine to Amazon, and he’s very eager to rub his success into the faces of the social dregs he went to school with (“Y’know, I’d bet dollars to donuts when you two aren’t fighting about who shot first, Han or Greedo, you can still muster up enough energy to make fun of other people.”) Randal’s joking demeanor quickly disappears when he lays eyes on Lance, but he does his best to deflect and try to turn the tables, by bringing up Lance’s embarrassing old moniker “Picklefucker,” as a result of a hazing ritual they went through as freshmen involving a pickle and Lance’s rectum. Lance isn’t pleased to relive this traumatic memory, but it doesn’t cut him as deeply as Randal hopes. Similarly, Randal’s attempt to fuck with him by generously offering to get him his order (actually a burger covered with dead flies and a soft drink filled with ice scooped from the urinal) doesn’t pan out, as Lance passes the food off to an impatient Jay, correctly suspecting something is up. Lee really is a one-scene wonder here, talking in a faux-polite voice just dripping with contempt and condescension, nailing it home as the one man to actually get under Randal’s skin.

After this less-than-pleasant chance meeting, Randal insistently fucks off work, dragging Dante with him (since he’s the only one with a car), heading off to a go-kart track, of all places. Apparently this is a common trip that he makes, as Dante inquires why Randal, as a grown man who can drive a car, gets such a thrill out of go-karting. Randal explains it reminds him of a simpler time, when life seemed like it was full of endless possibilities, unlike the seemingly hopeless adult present he finds himself in. For a brief moment, it seems like Dante and Randal’s personas are swapped from what we’ve seen from Clerks, as Randal bemoans his station in life and it’s up to Dante to convince him that he can change his course in life if he actually works towards a goal. Randal is less than convinced (“What would be the point? Besides, what do you give a shit? You’re leaving.”) It’s a very potent moment; between this and the Lance Dowds scene, this is the most vulnerable we’ve seen Randal, typically cool, collected and unconcerned with having any goal in life. That might have been all good when he was younger, but now his own insecurities about his life’s journey have started to creep in, as he stuffs them down and masks them with abrasive humor and smart-aleck remarks. When the two arrive back at Mooby’s during a massive rush of customers (at least that’s what Becky, and the film, wants us to believe, even though there’s only four people in line. Come on, Kevin, couldn’t you have hired like a dozen extras for the day?), Randal quickly reverts back to a disaffected smart-ass, burying his true feelings once more.

After closing, Randal has a big surprise in store for Dante for his surprise going away party: an X-rated performance of Kinky Kelly and the Sexy Stud, a live show featuring human-on-donkey beastiality (or “interspecies erotica,” as the donkey’s handler sternly corrects.) Again, this feels consistent with Randal’s undiscerning, non-judgmental sexual fascination from Clerks. It also comes off as somewhat sweet (in a sense…) as Randal mentions that this is something he and Dante had talked about since seeing Bachelor Party when they were 12. Even though we typically see Dante exasperated by Randal’s antics, there’s enough small moments throughout both movies that hint at their actual affection for each other, as Dante is visibly touched that Randal went through the trouble of throwing him a farewell party… at least until the event actually starts. It wouldn’t be a donkey show without a donkey, but there’s no girl, just the handler Randal spoke with, a large, bald man who proceeds to gyrate to “Naughty Girls Need Love Too” and strip down to a revealing leather get-up. Confused, Randal demands an explanation, but isn’t pleased with the answer he gets. Turns out that guy is the “sexy stud” as advertised, and “Kelly” is the donkey, despite certain… appearances (“But this donkey’s a dude!” “Kelly can be a boy’s name too!”)

So yeah, the guy blows the donkey. And then has sex with it. It’s pretty gross. It’s something that I, as a seventeen-year-old kid watching this in the theater, was pretty stunned by, but in a comedic way of being exaggerated shock comedy. Later in the same year, Borat would grace movie theaters, featuring similarly over-the-top moments, and I remember laughing so hard seeing that in the theater I couldn’t breathe. I revisited Borat a few years ago, having not seen it in many, many years, and not unsurprisingly, a lot of those scenes didn’t elicit the same reaction that used to. Crazy moments like these, where so much of the humor comes from just not believing a scene as disturbing and wrong actually snuck its way into a major-release movie, lose a lot of their potency after the first viewing. How could they not? The surprise of it is gone, so you’re just left watching a dude fuck an ass in the ass. How the situation plays out around the devious sex act is what props it up. Becky arrives and is just completely unable to process how to react (“I’m disgusted, and repulsed, and… I can’t look away.”) Her absolute astonishment over the size of the donkey’s unit is almost adorable (Dawson is really great throughout this whole movie.) Jay also gets in some good lines, acting almost innocent in his fascination with the whole situation (“You guys are gonna miss this shit! The big guy’s gonna corn hole that ass! With his wiener!”) Unfortunately, Emma shows up too, just in time to see Becky and Dante admit they love each other (still watching the donkey show) and start making out. Then the cops and firemen show up too, as Dante had called them arriving at Mooby’s and seeing all the smoke inside (in a great callback to him discovering the Quick Stop set ablaze.)

The seething emotions bubbling just below the surface of Dante and Randal finally erupt when they’re stuck in jail, in a genuinely satisfying emotional climax. Dante, of course, is livid: one day before the start of his new picture perfect life with Emma is all it took for Randal (“chaos incarnate” as he calls him) to tear it all down in one swoop, accusing him of fucking with him and holding him back his entire life. At this, Randal finally refers back to the events of Clerks (as the day of Julie Dwyer’s funeral, which is a great touch, since that’s logically how they’d recall the day), and we learn more of what happened immediately afterwards: pretty much fuck all. Dante retorts they did start taking community college courses, but not long after stopping going when Randal did (“One semester we took criminology, for Christ’s sakes! What the fuck, were we training to be Batman?!”) To Dante’s shock, Randal looks back at his Quick Stop days with great fondness (“I got to watch movies, fuck with assholes, and hang out with my best friend all day. Can you think of a better way to make a living?”) His previous yearnings for the past were shown mostly as just the rose-tinted nostalgia glasses of looking back at your youth, but here they’re shaped a little clearer. Randal genuinely liked his job, and his life. While Dante is looking forward to a life he’s not even confident he’ll even enjoy, Randal is looking back at the life he once had, and how that’s something he’ll never be able to have back now that Dante is leaving (“I hate everyone and everything seems stupid to me, but you were always the counter balance to that. The guy who was the yin to my yang. Now what the fuck am I going to do for the rest of my life?”)

After much goading from Dante, Randal finally blurts out his secret dream: for them to buy the Quick Stop and run it themselves. Of course, this is a financial feat easier said than done (Dante sneers, “What are we, Lance Dowds?”) The solution to this is basically a big deus ex machina, as Jay and Silent Bob, also stuck in the jail cell with them, offer to lend them the five-figure price tag for Quick Stop. We’re meant to infer this is from their leftover “Bluntman and Chronic” money after the events of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, but it comes completely out of left field. I wouldn’t want them to stop the movie dead to have them explain where they got the money from either, so there’s no better graceful way for them to pull out this information. But none of that really matters, since this moment is more about Dante’s decision: running away to a life he’s not sure he even wants, or starting a new one at home with the people he realizes he cares about most of all: Becky… and Randal. Jeff Anderson is really, really great in this scene. Brian O’Halloran too, but he’s mostly just reacting towards the end to Randal’s emotional diatribes. He’s hurt Dante is abandoning him, but even more so for something he doesn’t even have his whole heart invested in. His more asshole-ish behavior over the course of the movie is complete re-textualized as him lashing out over losing his best friend. As I said before, Dante and Randal are typically caustic towards each other, but there must be a reason they’ve tolerated each other for so long, and this scene shows it.

And so our heroes forged their own happy ending. Dante proposes to Becky, and he and Randal get to work getting the Quick Stop and RST back in working order. As the two ex-clerks man the Quick Stop counter, the camera pulls out as the footage fades back into black and white, complete with a Soul Asylum song, just as the original Clerks ended. It definitely feels like things have come full circle, but in a satisfying way that feels right. These two spent forever bitching about being stuck as minimum wage peons, but now they’re running their own business, the same place that they slaved away at for over a decade. Dante felt completely adrift in his life, unable to pick any sort of direction for himself, but now he’s taken charge in a major way, both personally and professionally. Even though I still do enjoy it, Clerks II is kind of superfluous, but I think its ending is a pretty solid final bow for Dante and Randal. I’m not sure what Clerks III will bring us, but I’m perfectly fine with this being my head canon ending for the characters. Clerks II might have been a strategic retreat back to safer ground for Kevin Smith, but he still managed to show that he hadn’t lost much of a step in giving fans more of what they like from him. Although you can certainly have too much (way too much) of a good thing, as our next entry will show…

2 thoughts on “ReView Askew: Clerks II (2006)

  1. Great analysis. It’s been too long since I’ve watched this one and you make me want to revisit it. The characterisation of Randal especially really feels rich and as you say both Jeff Anderson and Brian O’Halloran do great work here.

    I also have to admit to crushing on Rosario Dawson who is kind of awesome in this.

  2. In a deleted scene, Jay does say he got the money from the Bluntman and Chronic royalties. Kevin Smith said he cut out the explanation because he figured viewers could figure it out themselves.

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