July 21, 2006

Clerks II

It's strange, I think, that Clerks II is what it is. Eleven years, nine months and two days after the original hit the art houses, this sequel feels more like that one than any of Smith's others. More than a sequel, it's almost like a second draft; a draft with stronger characterizations, a better balance between the comedic and the dramatic, and an adept hand at weaving the same characters in and out of the plot at exactly the right times and in exactly the right ways. With a return to David Klein's raw, stripped-down photography — underrated for its role in the gritty, independent flair of Smith's early films — the words and dialogue are again allowed to take centre stage. Like the original, this is a film almost exclusively composed of people talking at each other. But six films later, Smith has elevated the form to a symphony of clashing and complementing phraseologies, backgrounds, and points of view.
Not since Chasing Amy has a Smith script grown so squarely from its characters. With the exception of a donkey subplot, all of the humour seemed to flow naturally from who the characters are and what they know (or don't) at a given moment. Some scenes proceed with an unflinching disregard for politically correctness. But Smith uses them not merely to shock the audience but to highlight characters that are outspoken even in the face of sometimes staggering personal ignorance. What few customers there are serve merely to launch the clerks that serve them off on new tangents; to raise new topics of discussion and explore different dimensions of how each character relates to all of the others.
Without the burden of a greater plot to serve, Smith's characters are finally unchained to behave exactly as they would. Dante and Randall still fire words back and forth at each other much like they did over a decade ago. But the intervening years have imbued their bitter banter with a certain urgency: time is ticking, yet the previous decade has only cemented the role each plays in the other's life further. They didn't have to worry about each other's feelings in the original; years of disappointment have taught them that they only lasting relationship each has ever had is with the other.
Jay and Silent Bob, elevated by the movies in between this and the original to cinematic heroes, are returned from the stratosphere to the low-level dope peddlers that they've always been. Foulmouthed and dimwitted yet naive and good-natured, Jay serves as the perfect window dressing. His unique and consistently incomplete understanding of any given situation can snap humour to drama and vice-versa at the drop of a hat. You can't really have Dante and Randall without Jay and Silent Bob, and Smith's script remembers to recognize what impact the foreground characters' decisions will have on them.
But in terms of the sheer bat shit bug-eyed crazy factor, Trevor Fehrman's Elias does the heavy lifting. Both fundamentalist Christian and fantasy fanboy, Elias is so repressed and socially insecure that he makes Will Ferrell's Corbit from Winter Passing look like a well-adjusted party animal. Randal sometimes said things in this film that made my jaw drop, yet Elias comes up with some out-of-the-blue statements that make Randal's jaw drop. Elias maintains a certain earnest likeability, much like Jay, in spite of his dysfunctional insanity.
Becky is Rosario Dawson exuding a sensual warmth, her speciality. She adds a certain down-to-earth charm to this role that made Becky less like an unattainable move star and more like the women I remember most fondly from my own daily living. In a movie centred around unknown actors, Dawson's challenge was to dim her star a bit, so that her character might work at their level. The greatest praise that I can give her is that she succeeds without impairing any of the qualities that make her so attractive to begin with.
Clerks II is a revelation. Film is a medium in which the script is just the starting point. As Smith the filmmaker evolved, his greater exploration of that medium left less and less room for Smith the writer. This is the first film since Chasing Amy where the writer came out on top. Smith the writer has honed his craft to create what is probably his very best screenplay. If Smith the filmmaker resigned himself to merely putting Smith the writer's blab-fests to celluloid, I don't think I'd mind a bit. It's what he's apparently best at. ()


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