Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Clerks II

Kevin Smith is a frustrating filmmaker, someone who came up in the 90s indie movement, but more than most of his contemporaries, he didn't seek artistic achievement, he was looking for mainstream crossover success. Smith's career path can be traced in moves from low budget comfort territory to more ambitious reaches for mainstream acclaim that fail leading to a retreat back to the comfort zone. In the case of Mallrats' failure, this led to what's easily Smith's best film, the hilarious and emotionally devestating Chasing Amy, however the failure of Dogma led to the goofy, utterly meaningless Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Bennifer aside, Jersey Girl was a creative failure, a totally generic comedy that lacked Smith's unique voice. When this attempt to reach out to the mainstream failed, he retreated back to make his first official sequel, Clerks II.

The comedy work that I like is usually about using comedy to cover a dark undercurrent, and the best Smith work is like this. The moments in Clerks that work best are when Dante and Randal express their frustration about working at the Quik Stop. Chasing Amy goes even further, using comedy as a way to bring us into the world, then moving into heavy drama in its second half. That film features the best transition between disparate tones I've ever seen in a film, and both halves work equally well.

Clerks II attempts to merge the two Kevin Smith styles, absurd comedy and sincere emotional stuff, however, he doesn't pull it off with the grace he did in Chasing Amy. There's some major flaws, but enough good shines through to make this a worthy sequel and a totally satisfying viewing experience.

However, I'll start with my major issue with the film. The reason Chasing Amy works so well is that the low budget aesthetic makes things seem much more real. When Smith works with a higher budget, he has a tendency to do cartoonish set pieces that take you out of the emotional reality of the film, stuff that's designed to shock, but ends up not quite working.

Basically, any moment of over the top comedy here doesn't work. Most of the stuff with Elias falls flat because the character doesn't feel real. He works as a foil for Randal, but particularly in the 'pillowpants' segment he feels like a total caricature. There's a lot of bits that feel removed from the emotional core of the film and it's like Smith put them in there because he wasn't confident in the film.

Look at the 'ABC' sequence, this is a scene designed to show Dante's attraction to Becky, and it works wonderfully. The slow push ins on the two characters make us realize that Dante clearly loves her and we know she's the right one for him. This moment works so there's no need to go and cut to the goofy footage inside the restaurant and then go to an even more bizarre crane shot mass dance number. This is totally seperate from the reality that the movie created and undermines the point of the scene, which is to show the emotional connection between Dante and Becky.

The other bit that fails because it goes too far over the top is the extended donkey sequence. I feel like Smith was just trying to think of something that would offend people the way the hermaphrodite porn did back in the original, but this sequence just went on too long and wasn't particularly funny, particularly the stuff with Elias, which felt totally unrealistic. Now, one could say that was the point, and in a standard gross out comedy, Elias' reaction would have made total sense. However, it's frustrating because so much of the film is emotionally right on and it touches on some really interesting issues. If some of this goofy stuff was held back, and the film went for a more lo-fi, real aesthetic, this film may have come close to Chasing Amy.

Because of the deadline, the wedding, the film had a strong sense of urgency and a feeling of emotional recklessness. You can believe that all these people would open up in the way they do because the world as they know it is going to end the next day. It feels implausible that two women would be fighting over Dante, but that's something you just have to accept. They do mention the oddness of it a few times, but it still feels a bit off, since this guy seems to have nothing particular to offer. It's weird that Smith chose to cast his own wife as an incarnation of the worst sort of relationship one could fall into, but the character is well used to show how much better off Dante would be with Becky.

The development of their relationship is satisfying, particularly the '1979' sequence, which featured some of Smith's best visual storytelling. It's not the most original sort of montage, but at that moment in the film, it felt totally right. I was genuinely surprised when Becky revealed that she was pregnant and the cake scene was another highlight.

Jay and Silent Bob in this film were a bit off. I think part of it was Smith's performance, he was doing the really goofy Silent Bob of Dogma and JaSBSB, which didn't feel appropriate in the universe of this film. Clerks Silent Bob was much more subdued and that's the sort of performance that was needed here. Jay didn't get that much good material and generally they just felt a bit old to be doing what they were doing. But, I did like the way they came into play in the jail scene at the end of the film.

Despite the love triangle, the real relationship at the film's core was Dante and Randal's. Randal is facing a future without the only person he actually likes and that scares him. The Jason Lee scene and go kart sequence are the critical piece of the character development, he's confronted with just how bad his life is and the only thing that makes it tolerable is leaving. So, he has Dante go karting with him just so they can spend some time together before they leave.

I think the jailcell scene was fantastic and the most notable moment in the film where Anderson and O'Halloran transcend their acting limitations and give a really moving performance. I like the idea that Randal sees what they're doing as a way to get around growing up and living a 'normal life.' People might consider it pathetic to work at Mooby's, but if he's happy, that's enough.

In the end, they buy the Quik Stop and finally have control over their destiny. However, the ending had a slight melancholy to it, with Dante and Randal both realizing that they've totally commited to this life, there's no more chance of escape. I think they're happy, but there's also the awareness that they're now bound there inextricably. The original Clerks was meant to tie in with the Inferno and the ending here brought that association back, they be happy to be there, but they're also trapped.

So, the film ends with both characters realizing that all they really wanted was right there already. One could argue that the film refutes growing up and encourages a permanent adolescent slacker state. However, the fact that Dante and Randal take control of the Quik Stop makes the message more like find what you want to do and take control of it, dont' let society tell you what to do. And, I think that's admirable.

This is a frustrating film because some of it is brilliant, and some of it is just awful. But, generally speaking the goodness shines through and I was really satisfied by the ending. However, it does leave us with the question of where Smith goes from here. With this film, he stopped trying to appeal to the mainstream and just accepted his place at the Quik Stop. So, where does he go from here?

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