Clerks III is a fans-only venture that’s sunk by a childishness devoid of wonder and poignant moments consistently undermined by self-mockery.
In Arthur Penn’s 1967 Bonnie and Clyde, a single moment begat New Hollywood. Warren Beatty’s Clyde, panicking during a botched robbery, shoots the persistent bank manager, an innocent old man, directly in the face, covering the cracked window with blood splatter. Though a quotidian shot now, what matters is the context of the shot: the scene had previously been played for laughs, as our robbers couldn’t quite seem to find their getaway car, giving the bank’s personnel enough time to catch up and begin a slapstick chase. It’s cartoonish and lighthearted, but when the blood paints the window (not as red or flowing as the gore-fests of Herschell Gordon Lewis, but certainly not the bloodless fantasy of Hays Code Hollywood), audiences stop laughing. Previously, any familiarity of Hollywood tropes could guide a viewer through its fare, but that blood is too real and arrived at the wrong time. The uncensored tone-switch meant that anything could happen in these new films, that not every hero gets their Hollywood ending, and that a certain sophistication (that was later confused with a simple dour outlook) was required from viewers in order to keep up. Critics and film historians point to this moment as Hollywood coming of age, as the inconsistencies and complications of reality began seeping into the foundations of the dream factory. Kevin Smith’s Clerks III, released fifty-five years after the great Bonnie and Clyde debates began, takes a similar approach of varying tones in the middle of a scene, only to summon an abhorrent creature: a childishness without wonder.
Smith, a long-suffering victim of nostalgia-based entertainment, uses the third entry in his trilogy to reprise his biggest hit. This time, Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randall (Jeff Anderson) have returned to manning the Quick Shop in Leonardo, New Jersey, now located next door to Jay and Silent Bob’s legal weed shop. They still play street hockey on the roof, they still argue about pop culture, and they’ve even retained Elias (Trevor Fehrman) from Clerks II as a human punching bag (his first lines are about NFTs). Life is more or less the same for our duo, as they seem to have found tranquility in the ritual of keeping the store. But, tranquility does not mean happiness: a tombstone reveals that Becky (Rosario Dawson) died shortly after the events of the previous movie, leaving Dante a wreck when he chooses to think about her. And Randall, a character who is a great manifestation of a particular Gen-X consumption-based angst, has made the wrong consumption choices (burgers) and suffers a heart attack. Randall miraculously survives, Elias assumes that Satan has something to do with it (leading to the only funny running gag in the film: Elias’s exponential gothification), and Randall carpes his diem by making a movie. The movie, of course, is Clerks, which permits the remaining hour of Clerks III to act as a humorous reimagining of shooting this small, independent movie replete with meta-jokes and hijinks. But, even shooting cheap movies can be stressful, and the process wears at the clerks’ friendship until Dante’s hospitalization forces Randall to be a card-carrying member of the New Sincerity movement. The film is completed, and Randall is changed, tranquil but sad. It’s unclear whether this universe’s Harvey Weinstein buys the distribution rights to Randall’s movie.
The first few seconds of the film include a needle-drop of My Chemical Romance’s (they’re from New Jersey) “Welcome to the Black Parade” — such a bizarre choice that one could anticipate this movie to go anywhere. However, as the film goes on, these bizarre choices seem more and more caused by clumsiness rather than radical filmmaking. Half of the film is shot at the counter of the Quick Stop with a very literal shot-reverse shot guiding our eyes until the occasional profile shot punctuates every second sentence of the titular clerks, as if they are suddenly being interviewed by Barbara Walters. It sounds like a small detail until it becomes the worst thing it can be: noticeable. All could theoretically be forgiven in subsequent scenes, but the lighting remains flat, the camera hovers too long after a joke, actors (especially Smith) gesticulate wildly when a subtle movement would be funnier, and every gag requires a sense of humor that appreciates Gen X naughty-word neologisms (e.g. “chucklefuck”, “thundercunt”, etc.). Silent Bob, hired as DP for their Clerks, even briefly channels his inner Kevin Smith when he notes that shooting in black-and-white would be better since the colors and lighting in the store are awful. They are.
But, it’s clear from endless call-backs and in-jokes that this is a fans-only venture, and fandoms take formal objections as mere quibble. So, a more central problem: whereas Clerks represented the witty insouciance of a generation outside the rat race, and Clerks II marked a more mature acceptance of a life gone by, Clerks III is so obsessed with its own unlikely existence that it opts to simply play the hits, much like a clip show. Smith’s impulse to have a character dismissively joke their way in or out of trouble is matched only by his impulse to also have these characters give a maudlin speech about lessons learned or the good times lost. This results in every emotional beat stripped of its gravitas as they’re revealed to be mere bits and every punchline never quite landing. Dante mourns for Becky without prompting, as if the film has been merely funny for too long and Rosario Dawson must grace the screen to remind us that this is movie about mortality. A horrifying scene in which Dante visits Becky’s grave sparks one of the best genuine conversations in the film (reminiscent of Dawson’s franchise-saving performance in Clerks II), as Becky’s ghost helps Dante manage his grief and gives him some pointers on living. This somehow ends with Becky admitting that she’s gone ass-to-mouth (another call-back) with Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X in heaven. This is not horrifying because of its sexual content; the View Askewniverse is full of that. Rather, what remains horrifying is Smith’s adolescent inability to create something beautiful without simultaneously mocking his own attempt. The reverse is also true: the genuine moments, even a death scene, are played to such weepy cues that the whole affair resembles a comic — not unlike Smith’s widely-mocked doodles of a crying Jay and Silent Bob beside a tombstone after every celebrity’s death. Though Dante’s death is peaceful, you can see the blood in the window.