Clerks III Review: Kevin Smith Goes for the Heart

The writers room for The Flash famously had three words on the wall: heart, humor, and spectacle. Clerks III, from indie film icon and Arrowverse veteran Kevin Smith, has plenty of heart and humor (along with a dash of spectacle in the form of a loving tribute both to cinema itself and to Smith's original Clerks baked in). What will likely surprise audiences is just how hard Smith pushes into the "heart" portion of the equation in the movie, which is playing all week via Fathom Events screenings at Regal Cinemas. The film reunites Smith with original Clerks stars Brian O'Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Jason Mewes, and Marilyn Ghigliotti -- plus Clerks II cast members Rosario Dawson and Trevor Fuhrmann, in a movie that manages to top Jay & Silent Bob Reboot in its sheer love for Smith's own world and its fans.

In Clerks III, Randal Graves (Anderson) and Dante Hicks (O'Halloran) are still the co-owners of the Quick Stop, with Jay (Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) running a marijuana dispensary in the former home of RST Video next door. After Randal has a near-fatal heart attack, he decides that he wants to do something bigger with his life, and sets out to make a movie based on the wildest moments and craziest customers encountered during his 30 years at Quick Stop and RST.

What follows is an oddly high-concept comedy, as Randal sets out to make a movie that is, very obviously, Clerks. That makes this movie a love letter to that one, right down to bringing back many of the same local actors who played minor roles in Smith's 1994 breakout hit. Ghigliotti reprises her role as Veronica, Dante's girlfriend from the first movie. Ghigliotti, one of only a handful of characters ever to play one major role in a Smith movie and not come back for more, delivers a raw, emotional performance in spite of not having much screen time.

Clerks III is powered by nostalgia, there's no doubt about it. While Clerks II could be viewed in a vacuum, it's difficult to imagine anyone seeing this installment and getting much out of it if they haven't first watched Clerks. Of course, while Clerks II got a mainstream theatrical release on more than 2,100 screens in 2006, Clerks III is being released via one of Smith's roadshows, where he screens his movie and does a Q&A with the audience in cities around the country. Yes, there's a week-long Fathom Events release going on right now at Regal Cinemas, but the bottom line is: this movie is a niche film. It was not made for mainstream consumption, but instead for Smith's hardcore fans, who will certainly have seen Clerks more than once. 

Is it self-indulgent? Sure. Does it work? Absolutely. Smith famously read comic books growing up, which led to him creating an interconnected universe of characters between Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, and their follow-ups and spinoffs. Clerks III utilizes that concept incredibly effectively, using the audience's existing relationship with the characters to form a narrative shorthand. It assumes a baseline level of understanding of their past, as well as a baseline level of emotional connection to Dante and Randal, at its start.

That isn't to say the movie doesn't stand on its own. Clerks III delivers some powerful character exploration in between the pop culture jokes and callbacks. It explores who Dante and Randal are at their core, and what about them Smith feels is admirable and lamentable. It gives the actors a chance to voice some of the critiques of the original movie, whether that's "who wants to watch a whole movie about two guys at a convenience store?" or "Is Sang the Asian design major a casually racist concept?" And it provides both the actors and the audience a trip down memory lane.

Smith doesn't revel in meta-humor the way Jay & Silent Bob Reboot did. They're certainly in the same philosophical ballpark, but there's no larger-than-life caricature of Kevin Smith showing up in Clerks III to make jokes about Tusk and Jersey Girl. The movie is self-aware, certainly, but not in a way that breaks the reality of the Clerks world. Jay and Bob are here, but as comic relief, just like they were in Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy -- and in some ways, this movie feels like a more direct sequel to that original "Jersey trilogy" than the increasingly wild and over-the-top movies that have come from Smith in the years since. And the nods to the original Clerks are done with the utmost respect to the source material. Kevin Smith is one of the biggest fans of Kevin Smith movies, and so this is certainly a case where you can trust the director to handle the characters with care.

Thanks to a new tax incentive program put in place by the state of New Jersey, Clerks III is also the only film since the original to be filmed primarily in the Quick Stop, and the only Smith movie since Chasing Amy to be shot entirely in New Jersey, where the View Askewniverse mostly takes place. There's a sense of intimacy and a sense of place here that was lacking when, in Jay & Silent Bob Reboot, Smith's production designers lovingly recreated the Quick Stop for a couple of scenes. After all, when you build the convenience store around the idea of shooting in it, you are inevitably going to have a version of the convenience store that is more comfortable to film in -- even if one character claims you can't film in color at a convenience store, because the lighting and colors will look terrible. It's an excuse to shoot the movie-within-the-movie in black-and-white...although really, Smith shot Clerks that way because it's what he could afford, back when you had to actually buy film to make an independent movie.

The first two Clerks movies had moments of earnestness and heart, but at their core, they were foul-mouthed comedies with some raunchy moments. The math is reversed in Clerks III, which leans hard into heart, lets the comedy follow that lead, and trusts that the audience will go along for the ride because they love these characters as much as Smith obviously does. The result is a surprisingly poignant, sometimes even dark, film that's brimming with life and love. By the time Randal's movie is done, and the audience gets a glimpse at some of the footage, it's clear that something really special has been captured both in- and out-of-story.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

0comments

Clerks III is now in theaters for a week-long Fathom Events screening at Regal Cinemas. Smith is also taking the movie on a nationwide roadshow tour. Dates and tickets for both can be found at clerks3.movie.