The phrase “this one’s for the fans” is usually delivered from a defensive posture. But in the case of “Clerks III,” it’s practically a statement of purpose. Now nearly three decades removed from the microbudget indie that made him one of the most unlikely major auteurs of the 1990s, writer-director-podcaster Kevin Smith has once again returned to the New Jersey Quick Stop where he first staked his claim as a filmmaker, bringing his now-fiftysomething slacker heroes back to confront the listlessness of middle age. But the real focus of “Clerks III” is not really Randal and Dante at all, but rather the film “Clerks” itself, and Smith aims this third installment straight at his diminished but still rabid fanbase, for whom the film remains a touchstone.
After a lively opening sequence scored to My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to the Black Parade” – Jersey pride is on full display in Smith’s music choices here – we settle in once again with Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson), still working at the Quick Stop, but seemingly content with their narrowing prospects in life. Dante is no longer engaged to Becky (Rosario Dawson), his fiancée from “Clerks II,” for reasons the film gradually makes clear. Randal is as motormouthed as ever, barely managing to tolerate younger protégé Elias (Trevor Fehrman). Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) are still endlessly loitering around the property, though this time as the owners of a cannabis dispensary where RST Video used to be.
But just when the film seems to be leaning back into the franchise’s old slice-of-life rhythm, Randal is laid low with a near-fatal heart attack. Taking stock of his life choices while recovering, he decides to finally make something of his life, and resolves to write and direct a film based on his and Dante’s experiences as convenience store clerks. Shot in black-and-white. With everyone from the Quick Stop scene playing themselves. In other words, he sets out to make the film “Clerks.”
For much of the remaining running time, Randal and Dante – reluctantly serving as his friend’s producer and co-star – go about recreating key scenes from the original film, with plenty of meta-commentary about its creation. Several veterans of the early Smith universe are brought back into the fold, and there are surprise cameos from a few A-list stars whose names should be easy to guess for anyone who’s seen a Kevin Smith film before. Despite periodic attempts to build a slow-boil conflict between Randal and Dante, after a while the movie almost starts to resemble a long clip-show, or a dramatized cast reunion Q&A.
Is this all wildly self-indulgent? A bit. Does it feel like the product of a filmmaker with plenty of fresh ideas? Not really. Has Smith lost his fastball as a writer? You could certainly make that case, and the screenplay’s attempts to recapture some of the rapid-fire pop culture references and x-rated musings of the director’s heyday often land painfully wide of the mark. But there’s something strangely poignant about it all the same. This film is clearly an unusually personal one for Smith – who ripped up an early version of the screenplay and started again after suffering a frightening heart attack of his own – and the fact that so many of its key players will forever be associated with “Clerks” gives the entire affair an emotional charge that is only partially due to anything that happens to their characters. (Indeed, the sight of the old extended crew, grey beards and beer bellies in tow, climbing to the top of the Quick Stop for a rooftop hockey game speaks just as potently as anything in the dialogue.) Much like another (far, far better) trilogy from another defining Generation X filmmaker, regret and the passage of time have unexpectedly emerged as “Clerks’” core themes.
And as strange as it sounds, time has almost been too kind to “Clerks,” in the sense that so many of the elements that once made it so refreshing and unique are harder than ever to appreciate. The sight of grown men having hairsplitting arguments about “Star Wars” felt novel in 1994; now it’s basically the organizing principle of Reddit. Minimum-wage workers shooting no-budget vignettes about their boring customer service jobs is an entire subgenre of TikTok. And forget Dante and Randal making a movie about their lives – would a Gen Z reincarnation of Kevin Smith even seek out a film career these days, or would he jump straight into podcasting, which he would probably find just as lucrative?
“Clerks III” is not a great movie, but it does make you realize what a miracle it was that a film like “Clerks” could have ever had the impact that it did, and that it happened to arrive at perhaps the only moment in time when it could have. Sometimes life is what happens when you’re not even supposed to be there that day.
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