Kevin Smith Took A Different Approach With The Story Of Clerks II

It's interesting how the first and third "Clerks" films act as time capsules for Kevin Smith's life. 1994's "Clerks," the first movie Smith ever wrote and directed, is a comedy inspired by his time working at a convenience store. 2022's "Clerks III" similarly nods to the heart attack that nearly killed Smith in 2018. Neither one of them is what you would call a memoir, but there are clear biographical aspects to both of these films.

Then you have "Clerks II." The 2006 film more or less picks up with "Clerks" duo Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) in real-time as they transition from tedious, low-paying jobs at convenience stores to tedious, low-paying jobs at a fast food joint. Dante, however, soon finds himself at a crossroads. Will be marry his affluent fiancée Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach) and leave New Jersey to run her family's business in Florida? Or will he settle down with his co-worker Becky (Rosario Dawson) and find a way to keep his old pal Randal in his life?

The challenge faced by Dante and Randal in "Clerks II" (e.g. searching for a new path that doesn't require them to abandon the parts of their old lives they actually want to hold onto) is one pretty much everyone has to deal with at some point as adults. Its plot, on the other hand, differs from the other "Clerks" movies in that it has little to no basis in anything Smith has literally gone through, as the multi-hyphenate will readily admit.

A complete fabrication

By the time he made "Clerks II," Smith was comfortably settled into his adult life. He and Schwalbach had already gotten married and started a family seven years prior, and Smith was well into his careers as a filmmaker, comic book writer, and comedian (among other things). In other words, his actual life had diverged from Dante and Randal's long ago, and he didn't much in the way of personal material to draw from for its story.

Speaking to Vanity Fair about "Clerks III" in 2021, Smith said he still loves "Clerks II" but copped to it being "pure artifice to a large degree." He added:

"'Clerks' was based solely on reality. I woke up, I went to that store; crazy people came in; kids hung out outside and sold drugs; I had a friend who worked next door. All of it was very autobiographical. 'Clerks II' is completely fabricated, right down to the fact that I never even worked in fast food."

Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course. While there are certainly storytellers who base their art directly on their experiences, there are plenty others who lead lives far removed from the stories they tell. No, the real issue with "Clerks II" is Smith seemed unable to come up with slice-of-life scenarios and lewd yet grounded situations like the ones in "Clerks." Instead, he went to the opposite extreme, filling the sequel with non-sequiturs (like when it briefly has a song-and-dance number) and elements that strain plausibility a little too much (like a scene in the third act involving a human and a donkey, and you can fill in the rest).

And now, a 'bizarre' return to form

"Clerks II" was a financial hit and earned decent reviews, but critics were notably cooler towards it than the first "Clerks" film. It feels like the problem was Smith didn't really have much to say with the sequel that he hadn't said before in his earlier movies, so far as the film's examination of adulthood is concerned. This would also explain why his approach was to instead try and one-up "Clerks" in terms of its raunchy humor and quirky dialogue, as opposed to building upon it in a way that makes its follow-up feel necessary, in a creative sense.

It didn't help Smith was coming off the swing-and-a-miss that was 2004's "Jersey Girl." Say what you will about Smith's infamous romantic dramedy film, it was a bold departure from what his fans had come to expect from him and signaled a potential new era in his directing career. After it failed, "Clerks II" couldn't help but come across as batting practice — a way for Smith to comfortably rebound without risking further injury.

Funnily enough, it's "Clerks III" that may have finally fulfilled the promise of "Jersey Girl" (an interesting sentence to write, I must admit). Critics have praised the movie for being deeply personal and surprisingly dramatic by Smith's standards, with Smith himself describing it to Vanity Fair as a "bizarre return to form" in the ways it draws from his real life. That it also sees him come full-circle as a director is only befitting, really.

Now, on to the "Tusk" sequel?