I'm not okay, you're bored
In the closing credits to his comic feature film debut Clerks, writer-director Kevin Smith thanks Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, and Richard Linklater, among others, for inspiration. It's a good guess Smith looks to those filmmakers more as trailblazers than artistic influences. Although Clerks traffics in the same kind of confused, emotionally bottled-up people that his forebrothers have captured with sometimes revelatory brilliance, Smith's new film reduces rather than expands the struggles of these lost types into a squalid, claustrophobic lowest common denominator where the biggest laughs come from a snide refusal to be affected by anyone or anything. Not only does no one in Clerks know what they want from life, they scarcely seem to know they're alive at all.
Smith lenses a day in the living death of two 22-year-old buddies, Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson, the director's real-life best friend since high school). Dante works at a convenience store overseen by an absentee manager; Randal toils next door at a video rental outlet whose humdrum movie collection is reflected in row upon row of black-jacketed videotapes behind the counter.
Those labelless selections, along with the subterranean, flickering-fluorescent atmosphere in Dante's store and the occasional glimpses of the working-class New Jersey neighborhood outside, are transmogrified by the grainy black and white film stock into a humid arena where Dante and Randal labor to retain their nonidentities in the ever-encroaching face of time, which will soon transform them from wisecracking layabout youths to bitter adults to emotionally crippled seniors. The film's time frame, unfortunately, doesn't last long enough to chronicle their comeuppance via the aging process.
The protagonists talk a lot about what they might've done and should do, but not as often about what they actually have done or will do. Dante is the whiner, an indecisive, easily intimidated malcontent who can't decide between his steady girlfriend Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti), a motherly but volatile Italian professional who brings him covered dishes for lunch, and Caitlin (Lisa Spoonauer), the favorite girl of his high school memories, now an ambitious college student who's returned home to marry her over-achieving fianc.
His much-agonized-over choice between Veronica and Caitlin is the closest thing Clerks offers to any genuine suspense, but since Dante has proven himself spectacularly incompetent at relating to others, we know he'll delay action as long as possible (and indeed he does, past the movie's end).
Randal is an asexual cynic who has an opinion on everything but little practical experience to back it up. Whether he's selling cigarettes to a four-year-old, spitting water in a customer's face, or, bored, watching a transsexual porno movie at the cash register post, Randal doesn't give a damn about anything, and therefore gets the best lines. Playing a loser who's psychoanalyzed himself into oblivion, Jeff Anderson makes such a convincing smarmy asshole you wish the small-time drug-dealers who hang around outside the store would find some excuse to beat him with a lead pipe--or hire you for the job.
I thought Reality Bites was the most obnoxious, self-conscious statement on post-teen ennui I'd ever seen...until now. In that film, at least, director Ben Stiller had the good grace to cannibalize the movie's hipness by having his character turn Winona Ryder's nobly intentioned documentary film into flashy MTV-style tube trash. And the others, even as they vomited offensive geysers of stale pop-culture trivia, were each given a life-affirming personal trial to express their fragile feelings--Janeane Garofalo sweating an HIV test, Steve Zahn coming out to his mother.
Even given its cheap reliance on brain-dead humor, I can't condemn Clerks as a failure. Straight out of the gates Kevin Smith has created a distinctive universe of long hours and no stimulation which many who've served their time in retail hell can recognize. The problem is, he doesn't successfully relate the tiny humiliations of a nowhere job to the particular personal dilemmas of Dante and Randal. His script exerts less creative effort on the bizarre procession of customers these guys encounter--some of whom are inspired nutcases, others silly, convenient concoctions--than on allowing Dante and Randal to riff ad nauseum on a universe of complicated relationships, scary decisions, and uncertain futures in which neither has the guts to participate.
The final straw comes during the finale, where Randal lectures Dante about his romantic vacillations and the ambiguous nature of adult identity. Randal's abrupt metamorphosis from narcissistic smartass to wise oracle--achieved without the character being challenged to understand or reassess anything in the previous hour and 20 minutes--finishes the film with a hollow thud. If Kevin Smith wants us to like, or at least learn something from, these trapped rats, he has provided no philosophical signpost to guide us through their problems. On the other hand, if the point of Clerks is that life's a bitch and then you die, message received. But I'd rather read it on a bumper-sticker than waste seven bucks and 90 minutes.
Clerks. Miramax. With Brian O'Halloran, Jeff Anderson. Written and directed by Kevin Smith. Opens Nov 4.
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