Friday, July 28, 2006

Clerks II

I saw Clerks II last night. I went in with low expectations and still managed to be disappointed. The charm of the first film came from its modesty, from a crude screenplay that Smith quite obviously loved writing, and from the film's lucid depiction of the soul-deadening aimlessness of customer service jobs. The convenience store job was one that everyone could relate to and similar to something most viewers had probably experienced first hand - the heroes' impotent acts of rebellion against their jobs were the stuff of the sympathetic viewers' more low-key fantasies. Clerks was packed with little ideas, one after the other. Some were clever, some were not, and they were rarely tied together in any way, meaningful or otherwise. But that, along with the equally (suitably) crude performances and plunk-it-wherever camerawork, I think were actually what made the film kind of likeable. Every so often it would surprise you with a genuinely clever (or, at least, surprising) turn or joke. But even as subsequent films made his failings as a filmmaker abundantly clear, I think the focus on Smith's increasingly prominent fumblings with actors, staging, editing and cinematography distracted people from the fact that the holes in his writing have never been rectified.

Clerks II is missing everything that made me want to root for the first movie, except for Jeff Anderson as Randal and Jason Mewes as Jay. The convenience store setting of the first Clerks was recognizable and familiar, which made it ring true(ish) even in its more absurd moments. Nobody, ever, has worked at a business like the Mooby's fast food joint of the new film. It's supposedly a huge chain, but there are a total of four employees (all of whom, evidently, are scheduled to work the entire day) and, oh yeah, there's no pressure for speed or productivity or cleanliness. As in the first film, schlubby hero Dante is stuck between two women, except that again the familiarity of the first film is tossed out the window for a fairly complete lack of believability. This time, Dante's faced with a choice between Rosario Dawson and Playboy model Mrs. Kevin Smith. These aren't real women, of course, they are fantasy creatures that look and smell an awful lot like women as you and I know them, except that the things they do and the words that come out of their mouths bear no resemblance to anyone you or I have ever known. And there's no real dilemma, either. The deck is stacked against the blonde, who is the Platonic ideal of a chauvinist's worst nightmare (she's trying to "control" him). By Dante's third or fourth dewey gaze in Ms. Dawson's direction, we get the idea already, even though Dawson's character seems like the equally questionable flip side of the blonde harpy - the good fantasy girl of someone who, I can only assume, has never actually spoken to a woman before. Worse, Smith's attempts to plant doubt as to whether whoever Dante chooses would love him in return are lame and unconvincing. Instead of the plotless meanderings of the first film, here the plot mechanics kick in after fifteen minutes, everything proceeding according to expectations with a few insubstantial twists thrown in here and there. Not even horse fucking - and, I'll just say that it never occurred to me that bestiality could be predictable - can distract from the corny, cliched rigidity of the storyline.

Even the dialogue, once upon a time Smith's claim to fame, is dull, largely based on one character saying something outrageous and then another character groaning and shaking his head in disbelief. It's lazy lazy writing, and it's not funny, particularly after whatever sharpness may have been there is deadened by Smith's baldly incompetent editing.

I find the differences between the two films' relative charm enlightening, and Smith's continued popularity is a mystery to me. Even more mysterious is why this sentence is allowed to exist: "Written, Directed, Produced and Edited by Kevin Smith." Smith has some pretty clever ideas for how to make boring white Jersey a little more exciting (which is the basis for all his plots and, I suppose, his motivation for the actt of filmmaking), but this script is a first draft that somebody else should have edited and rewritten, and that somebody else should have directed. Somebody with a feel for people as well as dialogue, with the ability to tell a story that doesn't rely on the moldiest cliches in the book as basic building blocks, and with some aptitude for the staging and rhythms of comedy (and, for God's sake, someone who knows what to do with actors). My suggestion? Betty Thomas might be available. She's consistently given shit scripts and making the most of them. You might say that she specializes in films that should, by all accounts, be total disasters (The Brady Bunch, Howard Stern's Private Parts, Dr. Dolittle, etc) and making them watchable, with a few very good moments thrown in here and there. Maybe someday she'll make a good movie, rather than a suprisingly not-bad one, but everything she does well is missing from Kevin Smith's repertoire. At the very least she could flesh out his half-baked characters on both sides of the gender line, could show him how to put together gags both obvious and subtle, could instruct his actors on how to give a humorous line reading, and could bring a few more distractions of her own to cover up the hulking inevitabilities of the eye-rolling story.

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