'Clerks III': A Heartfelt, Yet Messy Conclusion to Kevin Smith's Convenience Store Trilogy
A lot has happened since Clerks II came out in 2006. Aside from major social and political issues, changes in pop culture trends, and advancements in technology, a lot has happened in the life and career of writer/director Kevin Smith. Between his dissatisfaction with the studio system, taking a more independent approach to distributing his films, and becoming a highly prolific podcaster, Smith has been busier than ever. However, in 2018, he suffered a major heart attack, which he narrowly survived. This caused Smith to put a lot of things into perspective, and work towards maintaining a healthier lifestyle. In the process, he wrote the screenplay for Clerks III, which had been long gestating in various iterations over the past several years. However, this version is much more personal, and takes the audience back to the Quick Stop where the entire trilogy, as well as Smith's career, began. It's a sweet full circle moment, as it was shot on location in New Jersey, and wraps up the story of Dante and Randal in a rather touching way. It's clear that this is the exact film that Kevin Smith wanted to make, which is one of the best and worst things about the film. In essence, Clerks III represents Smith's strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker, which gives the film a messiness that I can't help but appreciate, even if it means that the film doesn't fully work as a whole.
The film picks up 16 years after the events of Clerks II, with Dante and Randal (played by Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson, respectively) still working at the Quick Stop. The film reintroduces us to the world of the convenience store, complete with references to the original Clerks film. It recontextualizes it for the modern day, but so much of it feels just like it did back in 1994. So much of the first 10 minutes or so feel perfectly in line with the previous Clerks movies, even if it doesn't quite have the same punch that they did. However, the film takes a turn when Randal has a near-fatal heart attack, which mirrors Smith's own real life heart attack. Randal survives, but has an epiphany that he needs to do more with his life. So he decides that he is going to make his own movie, based on his life working at the Quick Stop. This gives way to a meta-narrative of Smith's experiences in filmmaking, as well as the re-creation of some of the most iconic scenes from the first Clerks movie. During all this, Dante and Randal find their friendship being tested, and confront their mortality head-on.
One of the biggest themes across the Clerks trilogy is the idea of growing up. Each film sees Dante and Randal as they deal with the prospect of getting older. The first deals with transitioning into adulthood, the second one is more about settling down and becoming more mature, and this film is focused on middle-age, and the possibility of death. It is interesting to see how these characters deal with these ideas, but they also feel like a series of diminishing returns. Each film has similar arcs in terms of how the characters handle these, and it is pretty easy to guess where they will end up by the end of it. There are a few poignant moments that come from this in Clerks III, but certain moments feel a bit weak, or just don't have the desired impact that Smith is going for. It's understandable why Smith would want to make this a film about mortality, but the film's more serious moments don't always come across that well. At best, they are touching, but at worst, they feel incredibly disingenuous. The worst of these are some of the scenes between Brian O'Halloran and Rosario Dawson. In the interest of not spoiling anything, I'll just say that the film goes in a different direction than one might expect in regards to Dawson's character. As a result, the scenes she is in are rather serious, save for some raunchy jokes here and there. Regardless, most of the scenes that her and O'Halloran share feel off, mainly because both actors are operating on very different levels. It's as if they think they're in different movies. They end up finding a balance in certain moments (one scene near the end is especially moving), but there are certain bits that just feel a bit hamfisted, and took me out of the movie. Smith is capable of pulling off emotional moments in his films, but these moments are just very hit or miss here.
What is more disappointing to me is how much the comedy falls flat in the film. While the film has a more serious bent compared to the other two Clerks films, it is still a comedy first and foremost. Unfortunately, it's a rather middling one. A lot of the humor relies on meta gags and callbacks to the previous films, which does get old after a while. I can understand including some references here and there, but it overdoes it just a little. There are also some running gags that just didn't work for me. Perhaps the worst of these involves the character Elias (played by Trevor Fehrman) who has invested in cryptocurrency and NFTs. The jokes surrounding this feel so dated already, and feel pandering. However, another gag with Elias (that I won't spoil here) did make me chuckle, mainly because of how ridiculous it is. As is the case with the other films, the funniest bits lie in the dialogue between Dante and Randal, and part of me wishes that the film would have cut some of the weaker bits in favor of giving us a few more conversations between these two. What we do get is in this regard is quite good though, so I can't be too mad.
A lot of the creative choices are hit or miss, which is fitting, given that that is pretty much the case with the movie as a whole. The needle drops in this film are a prime example, as some are used well, but others are so confusing and distract from what we are seeing on screen. There is one specific song that plays in a scene that takes place in a hospital that is admittedly funny at first, but it overstays its welcome. Another near the end is rather surprising, but actually works pretty well in the context of the film. The fact that the film got to shoot on location in New Jersey and at the actual Quick Stop from the first movie is incredible, but some of the little sight gags and fake products we see in the background during any of the scenes in the store robs it of its authenticity. The cinematography is also a mixed bag, as it is sometimes pretty good, but sometimes feels a bit amateurish, particularly in how certain scenes are lit. I could say similar things about other aspects of the movie, but long story short, the things that it does well, it does really well, and the things that it doesn't do very well are pretty bad.
On the bright side, the performances are pretty good, especially from Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson, who are so great together as always. However, both actors are given some great material on their own, with O'Halloran specifically getting some great moments to shine in the film's third act. Anderson impressed me by giving Randal some depth, and embracing the film's dramatic moments so well. Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith are great as always as Jay and Silent Bob, although they aren't given as much to do compared to the previous Clerks films, but considering that they got a movie of their own a few years ago with Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, it makes sense that they get sidelined a little here. Despite this, they make the most of their scenes, and it is just good to see them again. Trevor Fehrman is pretty funny as Elias, and the direction the film takes his character is quite amusing. Some of the cameos from characters we've seen in the past two Clerks films are delightful, and are well deployed in the context of the movie.
While I have my criticisms towards Clerks III, I can't help but appreciate that Kevin Smith got to make it. It feels like the exact film he wanted to make, and I can't complain too much about that. It doesn't fully work for me, personally, but there's no doubt that hardcore fans of Smith and the View-Askewniverse films will love it. I like certain parts of it, but the aspects I don't like do drag it down significantly for me. Despite my issues with it, I have to say that this is a heartfelt conclusion to the Clerks trilogy, and brings it all full circle. The fact that it was filmed in the actual place that it all began is icing on the cake, and I know that it meant a lot for Smith and the rest of the cast and crew. The film as a whole might be messy, but it at least ends on a good note, and wraps up the trilogy in a mostly satisfying way. It may not be Smith's best film, but at the very least, it's nice that we were able to hang out at the Quick Stop with Dante and Randal one last time.