Clerks II

Opens at Metro and others, Fri., July 21. Rated R. 98 minutes.

We need more rude tales from the service economy. So do downsized New Jersey convenience store clerks Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson), along with their creator, Kevin Smith, whose 1994 Clerks put him on the indie map, for better or worse. Smith has since diversified himself into a profitable alternative empire including comics, Web sites, and modest steps toward the mainstream (Chasing Amy, Jersey Girl), but it's clear his heart has never been in Hollywood. This low-down sequel is proudly regressive, treads no new ground, and his fans wouldn't have it any other way. Problem is, the world has passed Smith by—meaning Office Space, both versions of The Office, and My Name Is Earl (whose Jason Lee cameos here), to name just a few examples of scratch-and-win discontent writ large. For such glorified losers, the lottery ticket will never pay off.

A fire at the Quick Stop forces Dante and Randal to the fast-food purgatory of Mooby's. After a decade of one routine, Dante now plans to quit the burger biz by marrying his hot-yet-pushy fiancée (Jennifer Schwalbach, Smith's wife), leaving Jersey and clueless Randal behind. Meanwhile, outside in the parking lot, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) are having a hard time finding buyers for their dime bags. Says Jay, "Sometimes I wish I'd done a little more with my life." It's the motto for the entire film, as its characters sail into the blue waters of their 30s.

Smith, of course, is doing fine, and Clerks II—like Jersey Girl—basically represents an embrace of home soil, marriage, and family, but only after the requisite number of jokes about dicks, who's more gay, when "ass to mouth" is permissible in bed, the merits of Star Wars versus Lord of the Rings (the movie's high point), and "interspecies erotica" (its low point). But we could get all of that on Smith's View Askew Web site, and this movie only differs from the original in three regards. First, it's in color. Second, Smith can now afford to move the camera with dollies and cranes, as if to answer complaints about his scene staging (which still hasn't improved). Third, he adds a pair of real, professional actors, who put the old cast to shame. Rosario Dawson, as the Mooby's manager with a thing for Dante, shines a 10,000-watt radiance over the original dim bulbs. And Trevor Fehrman, as Mooby's junior employee, is a marvel of shyly affronted dork decency, clinging to his fantasy of a Transformers movie even while trying to bust his cherry despite some fundamental misconceptions about his girlfriend's body.

Still, given the built-in audience, Smith could probably extend the Clerks brand for an indefinite number of direct-to-video sequels (or a streaming video sitcom, for that matter). For Part III, Randal and Dante go to work at an Internet start-up, circa 1999. Part IV: Enron. And for Part V, I foresee their enlistment and deployment to Iraq. By that time, the war will be over, of course, but the Clerks crew won't even notice.

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