Clerks III Review: Kevin Smith's Deeply Personal Goodbye To The Past

Twenty-eight years after Kevin Smith made his film debut with the foul-mouthed low-budget comedy "Clerks" and 16 years after the sweet and silly sequel, "Clerks II," the director returns to the Quick Stop to bring the story full circle in "Clerks III." Clerks Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) own the convenience store that brought them together, but they aren't sure if they've achieved their dreams or just fallen into their same old routines. Then Randal has a heart attack and realizes life is too short to waste, so he wants to make a movie. 

This is Smith at his most deeply personal: Randal's heart attack is clearly based on Smith's own, and the creation of his film at the Quick Stop is a metacommentary on the making of the first "Clerks." Fans in search of the mile-a-minute crass comedy of some of his earlier work, including the first "Clerks" and "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," might be disappointed by this deeply heartfelt dramedy that deals with some tough topics, but "Clerks III" is one of the best things Smith has ever made. 

Taking stock of life

"Clerks III" is about moments when we're forced to take stock of our lives, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention my life-long appreciation of Smith and his work. "Clerks" was the movie that made me want to make movies when I was a young teen, the movie that made me think it was even within the realm of possibility. It's vulgar and it's messy, but it's a pure slice of life from an incredible storyteller. Smith himself was inspired by another director in much the same way. In his book "Tough Sh*t: Life Advice From a Fat Lazy Slob Who Did Good," Smith revealed that on the night before his 21st birthday, he and a friend went and saw Richard Linklater's "Slacker" and it changed his life. "Slacker" made him want to make his own movie, and put him on the road to making "Clerks." 

If "Clerks" was Smith's "Slacker," "Clerks III" is his "Before Midnight." It's self-reflective and a little melancholy, and focuses heavily on the relationships these characters have forged over the years. Just as "Before Midnight" goes back to "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset," "Clerks III" returns to both of the earlier "Clerks" films with not only bright-eyed nostalgia, but the hard-earned wisdom of time.

Fewer funnies but as heartfelt as ever

Don't get me wrong — there are some great laughs to be had in "Clerks III." Just about everything in the hospital surrounding Randal's heart attack is hilarious, from the sassy surgeon played by Amy Sedaris teasing Randal about "The Mandalorian" during surgery to a pretty great prayer to Crom (the god of Conan the barbarian) from Randal on the operating table. Funny moments are peppered throughout, but mostly only to relieve some of the heaviness of the situations involved. After all, this is a story about two men facing mortality in very different ways, and it's no laughing matter. Dante's relationship with his wife Becky (Rosario Dawson) isn't what it once was, and he longs for their happy times together long before, while Randal feels like he's wasted his life and longs for a future where he feels fulfilled.

In order to make Randal's movie, the duo has to dig into the past, and that means reuniting Dante with former loves Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) and Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach Smith) as well. Dante must reconcile his feelings about these relationships in order to help Randal, which is the relationship he clearly treasures most. Both "Clerks" movies were about Dante and Randal's deep friendship, and the other friendships they made with the weirdos they worked with. "Clerks III" lets go of the laughs and lets us see the duo as real people instead of potential punchlines. 

Growing up is hard to do

"Clerks III" is sneaky. It's been marketed as a straightforward comedy, but audiences should be prepared to bring a box of tissues with them to the theater. All of Smith's flicks, save for maybe "Jay and Silent Bob's Super Groovy Cartoon Movie" and "Red State," have some kind of heartfelt message at their core, so the sentimentality and seriousness of "Clerks III" didn't come completely out of nowhere. 

Just as the first "Clerks" inspired me as a young creative to let my freak flag fly, and the second "Clerks" taught me about how we make our own family after we've outgrown the one of our childhood, "Clerks III" reminded me that while the past shapes us, we should never let it overshadow the present. The movie begins with My Chemical Romance's "Welcome to the Black Parade," and the lyrics are practically the film's thesis statement. Life is hard, but we "carry on." 

Smith's latest isn't an easy watch, but neither is growing older. "Clerks III" is the director at his most mature and emotionally resonant. It would have been easy to make "Clerks III" an easy nostalgia-fest with lots of throwbacks, but instead Smith opted for something more. It's a big swing that might not work for frat boys looking to laugh at dick and fart jokes, but that's what "Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back" is for, after all. "Clerks III" brings things full circle at the Quick Stop in many ways, and it feels like a definitive ending to the saga he started. 

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10