If there is ever a filmmakers who seems to, at least in art, sum up the adage “Write what you know,” it’s Kevin Smith. He was a New Jersey convenience store register jockey when he wrote/directed and co-starred in his debut breakthrough comedy Clerks in 1994. His subsequent films Chasing Amy (1997) and Dogma (1999) each drew inspiration from Smith’s own relationship and struggles with his Catholic faith and arguably rank at the top of his work. Which leads us to Clerks III, our third trip to the suburban Quick Stop store owned and manned by the now middle-aged Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson).
After years of working themselves up from part-timers to co-owners, Dante and Randal still feel stuck in the local Quick Stop. But all of that changes after Randal suffers a heart-attack that leads him to reexamine his life. Rather than spending all of his time trash talking movies, he is going to actually try and make one himself, based on his experiences at the Quick Stop. What follows is a story that will seem familiar to those who know Smith’s own origins as a filmmaker who anyone who saw last year’s Smith-centered documentary Clerk. The writer/director has his onscreen avatar walk the same path he did in the early 90s when making Clerks.
The first Clerks movie is considered a landmark in the 1990s indie film movement for a reason. It spoke to the frustrations of a large part of a generation that felt let down by the economic fallout of the conspicuous consumption of the 1980s. A revisit with the characters in 2006’s Clerks II, found them still in the same quagmire, still struggling, but perhaps coming to the realization that they may be the authors of their own misery if they don’t do something to change their life. The Clerks movies were starting to shape up to be a variant on Up documentary series, which started off as a profile of a group of British school children which then proceeded to check-in with them every seven years to see how their lives have changed. But what Smith does here somewhat spoils that potential in exchange for what could easily be called navel gazing, though he would more likely call it a tribute to the people who helped him make that first film that launched his career. This is very much a movie for the Smith faithful and that’s it. It’s an inside joke and those who aren’t fans already are unlikely to find a lot of humor here.
Smith first had the idea of his Clerks characters Dante and Randal making a low-budget, semi-autobiographical film about their lives at the Quick Stop nearly two decades ago as a spinoff theatrical film from his short-lived Clerks: The Animated Series cartoon. But it was the near fatal heart attack that Smith suffered in 2018 that lead the writer/director to revisit the notion, drawing on that near death experience to provide the dramatic impetuous for his characters to pick up a camera here. (Much of the dialogue between Randal and his doctor in the scene here is pretty much verbatim to how Smith described his own conversation with his doctor in subsequent interviews.)
So with this kind of personal attachment one could hope that Smith would deliver a film that was on par with some of his earlier work. Unfortunately, heartfelt intent doesn’t necessarily translate into well-crafted cinema and that is the case here. Smith has never been a visual stylist, so it is no surprise that we get the usual mostly utilitarian setups that we have seen from Smith before. But it is his ambition with his story that exceeds his grasp here. His key cast for the Clerks films were all recruited locally from the Red Bank, NJ area back when Smith created the first film. While they are up to the comedic demands of the films, they sometimes fall short in the more dramatic demands of the films. And the more dramatic elements, the more heartfelt moments that Smith is definitely pushing his own writing with, lie a bit beyond the reach of his leads.