The creator of the View Askew Universe (or View Askewniverse), writer/director Kevin Smith, is as well-known for his indie movies as he is for his comic book writing, his podcasting, and his television directing. All of it is possible because of his first major feature, Clerks (1994), which premiered to rave reviews at Sundance, before being purchased and distributed by Miramax where it went off to become a cult classic. Since then, the cast and characters have reappeared in other Smith projects, often playing other people, except when coming back to the home base stories of the convenience store operators Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and Randall Graves (Jeff Anderson) as they did in 2006’s Clerks II and now Clerks III. Though mileage varies from project to project, even among Smith’s most established fans, the Clerks series of films are, without a doubt, the heart of the entire View Askewniverse. It makes sense, then, that Smith, who is never afraid to draw inspiration from his own life, borrowed directly from his 2018 experience with a “widow-maker” heart attack to craft a script for Clerks III in which his characters could not only speak for him, but provide an incredible button for his entire connected universe of films, should he wish. Whether you’re supposed to be here today or not, it’s time to clock in at the Quick Stop, folks.
Since the events of Clerks II, Dante and Randall continue to run the Quick Stop, catering to the same customers as always, taking breaks to play rooftop hockey, and generally bullshit around. During one of Randall’s usual oral tête a têtes with Elias (Trevor Fehrman), the unexpected happens. Randall suffers a heart attack that nearly takes his life. Determined to do something more, Randall decides to make a movie about his life working at the Quick Stop, recruiting Dante to play multiple behind-the-scenes roles, as well as one on-screen one. Soon, the little convenience store that was their beginning is dressed and ready for its close-up. But is anyone else? More importantly, is Dante?
Smith is, and I suspect he’d even agree, not much for subtlety. His films often reuse jokes meant to be self-referential to the point of overkill, characters oscillate between multi-dimensional and hard exaggeration at an almost whiplash pace, and he’s not afraid of being offensive in some form or another. Yet, his films, at some point or another, have found their audiences. Whether it be the comic-faithful via Mallrats (1995); the stoners via Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001); the lovestruck via either Chasing Amy (1997) or Clerks II (2006); or the religious via, his best work in my opinion, Dogma (1999). Each film has its problematic moments, more often emblematic of when they were made and Smith’s shifting perspectives on life, faith, love, and family. His previous film, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot (2019), was as much a reason to get the gang back together as it was a way to spend time with his actor daughter Harley Quinn, herself a staple of Smith’s films since Strike Back. So when it comes to Clerks III, audiences should know what to expect, but it’s the unexpected gut punch that will have you screaming “I wasn’t supposed to be here today,” a statement that’s become as popular as “this job would be great if it weren’t for the fucking customers” among his fan base.
Much of the comedy within Clerks III is meta, but not in the traditional wink-at-the-camera type or even the self-referential kind as friends joke among friends. Clerks III literally is a movie-within-a-movie as Randall decides to make a film about his life working in the Quick Stop based upon his experiences with customers, something that Smith himself did when he made Clerks. The amount that Randall needs is just about exactly the number Smith used to make Clerks. The performers are almost entirely friends of Randall’s, which means that they are also friends of Smith’s. Randall’s film is shot in black-and-white because the interior colors of the Quick Stop are gross, so shooting in monochrome will make the film more attractive while also giving it an artistic quality like being observed from the security cameras (an inference by fans of Clerks). Within the framework of Randall trying to memorialize his life, to create something within the medium he himself has spent his life watching via the RST Video store he operated for decades, so is Smith. In a lesser director’s hands, this would feel masturbatory in its totality, yet, it is instead shockingly profound, exploring the value of life, our connections, legacy, and the fragility of existence.
How a film opens should set its tone. In the case of the first Clerks, it was watching Dante open the store. In Clerks II, it was Dante opening the store to find it on fire, thereby moving them to Mooby’s where Dante would meet Rosario Dawson’s Becky, a meeting which would never have given Dante a chance at the kind of quality life he so desired. For Clerks III, Smith begins once more with Dante opening the store, but he uses “Welcome to the Black Parade” by New Jersey-based rock group My Chemical Romance as the musical accompaniment for the opening montage, as well as introducing what other fan faves Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) are up to. Given that the entire album, “The Black Parade,” is a rock opera following a cancer patient who dies and recalls their life, an immediate poignancy is presented, one of many throughout Clerks III which remind audiences that Smith is a damn powerful storyteller. Amid the usual infantile humor, Smith surprises again and again by unflinchingly looking back on his own filmography, commenting on the parts that don’t age well (implied racism) and bringing to bear decades of unresolved frustrations amid his characters. If Smith were to give up filmmaking after this film, or, at least, stop telling View Askewniverse stories, Clerks III would be the right final film. Certainly Clerks II felt that way, too, so it’s possible the veteran writer could come up with something, but it’d likely feel cheap (even for him) and inauthentic.
In an effort to preserve Clerks III, it’s difficult to discuss specific elements without giving away anything which may influence one’s cinematic experience. What can be stated plainly is what audiences have come to expect from Smith: his friends, his humor, and all the people and places that have come along for the ride since 1994. But rather than throw it all into a blender and have some fun like Reboot could be accused of, Smith offers his most sweet and tender film since Jersey Girl (2004), a film I feel is unfairly maligned. If his private persona is anything like his public one, Smith wears his heart on his sleeve, appearing a sobbing mess after quite a many film he offers his thoughts on, and, unashamedly, here I, too, am a mess after Clerks III. Even now, having had time to marinate on and process Smith’s narrative, his direction, his editing, and overall approach, I find myself in tears, so beautifully did he execute his vision. It’s puerile and blasphemous, but in that innocent way in which a donkey show inspires an honest expression of affection and personal truth. But as “Welcome to the Black Parade” begins with a mournful start, it, too, turns into an uplifting mantra that “… So paint it black and take it back … Let’s shout it loud and clear… Defiant to the end, we hear the call… to carry on, we’ll carry on …”.
I’m so glad you recovered, Mr. Smith, so that you could gift us all this story and to remind us that in times of great pain and heartbreak, we can carry on. But, respectfully respectfully respectfully …fuck you. ::continues on as sobbing mess::
Exclusively in theaters on September 13th through September 18th, 2022.
Writer/director Kevin Smith will also be taking Clerks III on the road via the “Clerks III: The Convenience Tour.”
For more information, head to the official Clerks III website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.