by Rob DiCristino
Major spoilers ahead.
“What the fuck would the great Randal Graves do if he were half the master of his destiny that I’m supposed to be?” asks Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) in Clerks II’s dramatic climax. “I’d buy the QuickStop and reopen it myself!” Randal (Jeff Anderson) barks in response, queuing one of the most poignant and cathartic sequences in writer/director Kevin Smith’s filmography: His clerks — patron saints of Gen X ennui — are finally taking a modicum of control over their destinies, stepping up to the proverbial plate in the only way they know how. They’ll never be billionaire entrepreneurs, of course, but after thirty years of impotent commentary from the margins, owning and operating Jersey’s most famous corner stores feels like exactly the degree of adult responsibility these two slackers can handle. Smith closes on the pair back behind the counter — their counter— and fades to his iconic black and white, cementing his thesis that personal growth is relative to the person doing the growing.
Smith devotees will immediately recognize Clerks III as an ode to his landmark original film, a series of thinly-veiled references to its real-life production and the cultural legacy it bore. Randal’s heart attack is clearly inspired by Smith’s own 2018 brush with death, and despite drawing heavily from Clerks’ storied development for 2008’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Smith returns to the cinematic womb this time to reckon with his own mortality. Death looms all over Clerks III, including an extended heart surgery scene (with cameos from Amy Sedaris and Justin Long), coffin-side conversations with Ghost Becky (who extols the joys of sex in heaven), the once-devout Elias going full atheist goth, and a second major character death that sets the stage for Smith’s final assessment of his life and career. By far the most funereal film Smith has ever made (a significant achievement in light of Dogma and Red State’s apocalyptic overtones), Clerks III wants to be a touching and introspective victory lap across a sea of warm, reassuring nostalgia.
It’s also deeply unfunny, the product of an Extremely Online Gen X Dad who believes references to NFTs and The Mandalorian qualify as edgy jokes. He’s teetered on this precipice for a while now, but Smith seems to have finally been swallowed by his own circular internet echochamber, writing Clerks III as if it’s one of his Evening With monologues or an episode of one of his thousand pop culture podcasts. It’s the product of a creator who spends most of his time talking about his creations on stage, one whose more recent attempts at innovation (including the underrated Tusk) were apparently met with enough apprehension to push him back into telling safe, predictable stories that require the least possible effort. Smith goes through this every ten years or so, of course (is anyone online old enough to remember the Jersey Girl backlash?), but whereas some of his resets inspired a fresh energy (Clerks II), there’s a distinct laziness to Clerks III that leaves us wondering if Smith’s heart is even in this anymore.