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Frustrated Incorporated: Jeff Anderson and Brian O'Halloran in 'Clerks II'

Frustrated Incorporated: Jeff Anderson and Brian O'Halloran in 'Clerks II'

If the footage weren't in color, and if the actors reprising their roles were a little thinner, you'd swear Kevin Smith's Clerks II was nothing but outtakes from Clerks, the charmingly crude black-and-white heap upon which Smith built his frustratingly uneven career as a maker of cult favorites about average people leading below-average lives. Of course, Smith acolytes would insist that's the point: Here we are, a decade later, and nothing has changed for Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson). They're still go-nowhere men in New Freakin' Jersey, moved only by the inferno that devours the Quick Stop during the sequel's opening moments. And they crawl only as far as Mooby's, the fast-food joint featured in other Smith films—because, try as the writer-director might to escape his self-contained View Askewniverse, he can take only right turns.

It's here they stay, doing the same shit they did in the first movie—only, somehow and inexplicably, less so. Dante, once more, is torn between two women: his fiancée Emma (played by Smith's wife, Jennifer Schwalbach, who should never try to act again), and his boss Becky (Rosario Dawson, who actually earned the paycheck and deserves a bonus). The former promises him an escape from New Jersey—she is ready to drive him down to Florida, where her family awaits with a new job and a new house—while the latter offers only true love and Jersey (well, that and she can deliver dialogue without sounding like she's reading a foreign tongue translated onto cue cards being held up three miles away).

Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) are still dealing dope in the parking lot and dancing to the beat of the boom box, but hanging over the proceedings are the melancholy musings of a filmmaker revisiting old haunts while trying to leave them behind for the promise of something different, if not something better. This is very much the kind of movie one expected from Smith after the depressing middlebrow sitcom that was Jersey Girl, in which he tried to move up and found himself smacked down by the fans who wanted nothing to do with his weepy, sentimental move toward domestication. He had little choice but to go back to the Quick Stop and ride shotgun with Dante and Randal; that's what viewers wanted—another prolonged dick joke sprinkled with comic-shop small talk.

Smith's heart is in it, but it's sort of a broken heart now; Clerks II feels as though it was made by a man who needs a change but isn't permitted to make one. Part of that is his own fault: He's too erratic a writer and too flaccid a director to balance the smirky-dirty humor with the schmaltzy sensitive shit. You want to give him credit for trying, for going back home and pushing his friends out into the real world. Yet Clerks II is as clumsy and junky as the first film, and there's no excuse for it at this late date; Smith has made too many movies that cost too much money to keep hoping the camera is in the right place or that the scene of the dude fucking the donkey is gonna work when jammed next to the prolonged exchange between Randal and Dante in which they reveal how they really feel about each other. Clerks II can't bear the strain of its amateur-hour theatrics: The dramatic moments become melodramatic; the bawdy moments turn icky. The fans will eat it up.