Sunday, July 23, 2006

More Attention Than This Is Worth

As the previews ended before Clerks II, Robbie had a moment of doubt. He turned to me and said, “You know if this is good, we have to eat crow.”

We didn’t.

Clerks II is not a good movie. Its comedy is witless and labored, and its drama is corny, sentimental and ham-fisted. No wonder Kevin Smith had such a man-crush on Ben Affleck for all those years; Smith writes like Affleck acts.

If you still harbor any residual affection for Dante and Randal, that may carry you through Clerks II. If you can still manage to write off Smith’s unwillingness to develop his craft as a writer or director as “slapdash charm,” that might help, too.

I saw Clerks II in a small theater in Los Feliz. At the box office, one concerned moviegoer asked, “It’s not sold out, is it?” scarcely able to believe that he was able to buy a ticket mere minutes before showtime. He needn’t have worried. The tiny theater was barely 1/3 full. Maybe it was the size of the audience, but no one seemed to get that much enjoyment out of the movie.

The one vocal audience member was a woman in our row who looked to be in her mid-forties with a hippie/crazy lady sort of vibe, who squealed with delight at the big comic payoffs. Even her laughs were few and far between, and besides her, there was a quiet chuckle every now and then. Mostly everyone sat in bored silence as empty sex jokes and lame pop culture references rolled by one after another. One silver-haired old man sitting near the crazy lady spent the 90 minutes staring blankly at the screen, impassive as a wax figure.

If you want a concrete example of how much the culture has coarsened since 1990, vis a vis the comedy landscape, look no further than Clerks and Clerks II. In Clerks, the shocks were big and seemingly effortless. In Clerks II, you can see Smith sweating to push the limits when really, there aren’t any anymore. Nothing you can say in a comedy is really shocking, especially when there’s no real message behind it. South Park can still manage a shock with sharp timing and delivery. And it helps if they’re saying something that’s actually provocative about a genuine taboo like the Mohammed cartoon controversy, or even a silly but very real Hollywood taboo like Scientology. But when Randal rattles off a list of racial slurs for no reason, Smith doesn’t have a point to make. He’s just trying to be shocking, and falling back on one area he hopes will still get a rise out of people, and it shows. (Although I did smile at the gag’s unexpected follow-through, when Randal’s determination to “reclaim” the term “porch monkey” leads to him writing “PORCH MONKEY 4 LIFE” on the back of his Mooby’s shirt.)

In Clerks, the dirty jokes and pop culture references were not only more organic, they were more clever. When Dante can’t let go of the “37 dicks” issue, it’s understandable because he’s talking to his girlfriend. In Clerks II, why does he loudly and repeatedly insist to Randal that “You never go ass to mouth!” if he’s so embarrassed about the conversation? Why not just say “That’s disgusting, Randal,” and change the subject? Only because Smith so desperately wants people to walk in on Dante saying something shocking, and seems to be hoping that “ass to mouth” is the new “snowball” or “37?” or “finger-cuffs.”

In Clerks, Randal’s observation about the workers on the Death Star in Return of the Jedi was clever and funny. Dante’s observation that Empire is like life because it ends on a down note is relevant to the characters and theme. In Clerks II, the unjustly lauded Lord of the Rings vs. Star Wars debate is pointless and infantile. The LOTR geeks simplistically and wrongly argue that “Mannequin” Skywalker’s “shitty acting” ruined the Star Wars saga (Smith must not notice George Lucas’ recent slide into undramatic, un-actable writing because it’s too much like his own), and Randal’s promising but obvious reduction of the LOTR trilogy to “three movies about walking” degenerates into calling hobbits gay until a LOTR fanboy throws up. Big whoop. This is the trilogy face-off to end them all? This is the best a fanboy treasure like Kevin Smith has to offer? Not to mention the observation that Go-Bots are the K-Mart Transformers. Ya think? Hasn’t everybody pointed that out by now?

At one point Jason Lee walks in and Randal taunts him by calling him Picklefucker, because in high school, Picklefucker was sexually abused by seniors who essentially raped him with a pickle and forced him to eat it. Hilarious. Picklefucker is obviously the one who deserves to be made fun of in this situation, since he was stupid enough to get bullied. What a great way to appeal to all the fanboy nerds in the audience who spent high school getting bullied themselves, than by having Randal taunt someone for getting raped by a pickle? Sure, Picklefucker is now a smug Internet millionaire who arrives solely to berate our heroes for working in fast food, but given how Randal treats him, can you blame him? If this were Picklefucker’s movie, this would be a justly triumphant moment.

In a sitcomish moment, Dante admits that he’s afraid to dance at his wedding, and Rosario Dawson takes him up on the roof to teach him. It’s hard to tell if her dancing is any good, since her boobs jiggle so much you can’t take your eyes off them, but the scene turns into an out-of-nowhere feel-good music montage to the Jackson 5’s “ABC” (Robbie: “God, this is like something out of a Chris Columbus movie.”), culminating in a non-sequitur dance number (not performed by principal cast members). Smith sets the bar so low for himself that the mere attempt at a musical number is supposed to impress, but really it’s just a strange break in tone that hearkens back to the thrown-together weirdness of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.

Amazingly, Jason Mewes is still funny in spite of everything. After Jay and Silent Bob, I thought I’d never want to see Jay again, but here he’s back in small doses, as it should be, and it’s surprisingly refreshing. He’s a little mellowed out, probably on account of going clean in real life, but there’s something nice about it. There’s a sweet, underlying maturity that comes through Jason Mewes, even as he’s exposing himself in near-obscene ways. It’s playful and sincere, and you get the feeling he’s just happy to be here. He practically sleepwalks through the role, but everything else about the movie is so forced, Jay’s easygoing delivery is a welcome change of pace.

Unknown Trevor Fehrman delivers an oddly riveting performance as a naïve Christian teen. The character is a bizarre, over-the-top caricature that bears as much relation to reality as movie nerds with taped glasses and pocket protectors. He plays it the only way it could be played—to the extreme—and it’s somehow endearing, at least until Smith shits all over the character with a stupid and humiliating payoff.

If Clerks grew out of the life experience of working at a convenience store, Clerks II seems to grow out of the life experience of spending a decade on the Internet. Idiotic debates about Transformers vs. Ranger Danger vs. Go-Bots? Star Wars vs. Lord of the Rings? Flamewars on blogs? Going ass-to-mouth? Live donkey sex shows? It’s all online.

In Clerks II, Dante is again forced to decide between two women. But unlike Clerks, in which his feelings for the women were complex and believable—one a nice girl Dante was uninterested in, and another a slutty, manipulative girl he was helplessly obsessed with—the women in Clerks II are one-dimensional. Dante’s decision is obvious. Here, the girl Dante is truly into (Rosario Dawson) is also nicer and hotter. The girl he’s not that into (Smith’s wife) is his selfish controlling fiancée who also happens to be less hot. They are romantic comedy archetypes. So what’s the problem? To Smith’s credit, you do feel a little bad for the fiancée when she gets her heart broken at the end, but this just makes Dante a cad for cheating on her and dumping her. Dawson is pretty good in her role. Assuming her admission that going ass-to-mouth is okay in the heat of passion sounds hot to you, she creates an appealing “perfect girl” love interest. Except that all her scenes with Dante are loaded with clumsy exposition. Watching them together is like watching Anakin fall in love with Padme all over again.

Clerks II culminates in a dramatic moment between Dante and Randal discussing their futures. Jeff Anderson’s acting is surprisingly affecting, although the dialogue spells things out more than necessary. Randal’s argument—that living an unambitious life that you love is better than “growing up” because you feel like you’re supposed to—is clearly Smith’s own justification for retreating back into the kind of movies he’s comfortable with. You start to understand why he almost burdened this movie with the terrible title “The Passion of the Clerks.” And hey, if he feels that passionately about regressing, maybe it’s for the best.


Anonymous said...

Oh, come on. It wasn't that bad. Indeed, you found positive things in it. Elias and Randal were charming, and Jay was better than was to be expected. So, focus on those good things and embrace the rest with the eyes of love. I mean, who cares about stupid Dante and his choice between girls that should never fall for him anyway. Not me. If you saw it at 4:30, I was probably the loud laugher mentioned, but I think you didn't. It was, after all, more than 1/3 full.

matt said...

King's Quest said:

So, focus on those good things and embrace the rest with the eyes of love.

My little cartoon monocle just flew off my face and shattered against the wall.