At the end of 2001's Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, God appeared onscreen in the form of pop star Alanis Morissette and literally closed the book on the world writer-director Kevin Smith had created over the course of his five-film Jersey "trilogy." It was about time. What began in 1994 as a small universe populated by two surly clerks at a rundown convenience store and dope-dealing heterosexual life partners Jay and Silent Bob had expanded to include cynical mallrats, man-loving lesbians, renegade angels and a crew of leather-clad female jewel thieves. In short, things were getting out of control and the wildly over-the-top Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back was as much a parody of Smith's excesses as it was a farewell note to the land he affectionately called "the Askewniverse." After seven years, he was finally ready to leave his alternate universe behind and take up residence in the real world.
So why has Smith returned to the Askewniverse only five short years after he bid the place adieu? Blame it on Jersey Girl, the 2004 father/daughter drama that marked his first attempt at a more "mainstream" picture (i.e., one without any oral-sex jokes). Not only did the movie fail at the box office, Smith's fan base treated it as if it were something unclean. The irony of the situation is that Jersey Girl is actually a decent movie that had the misfortune to be released at the tail end of the Bennifer fiasco. Aside from allowing Smith the opportunity to stretch his considerable talents as a writer, that film remains his most professionally directed picture to date, thanks to a fruitful collaboration with veteran cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. So seeing him back behind the counter at the Quick Stop can't help but feel a little depressing; it's like watching a co-worker who quit to "try other things" meekly returning to his job as if he'd never left.
To his credit, Smith doesn't celebrate the fact that things haven't changed for Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson). A decade has passed since the events of the first Clerks and both counter jockeys are still stuck in dead-end retail jobs. Ever since the Quick Stop burned down, they've been plying their trade at the local Mooby's franchise along with fellow wage slaves Elias (Trevor Ferhman), a sheltered teenager, and Becky (Rosario Dawson), their cute boss. Fed up with his lot in life, Dante plans to flee Jersey forever and make a fresh start in Florida with his new fiancée Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach, Smith's real-life wife). But two obstacles stand in his way: The first is Randal, who can't let his best buddy go without making a really stupid and futile gesture on someone's part. The second is Becky, a close friend of Dante's who may be a better match for him than the woman he's engaged to marry.
Although he's not thanked in the credits, it's hard to imagine that Richard Linklater's Before Sunset didn't in part inspire Smith to make his own ten-years-later sequel. (Smith is on the record as being a big Linklater fan-he cited the director as an inspiration in the credits of the first Clerks.) The major difference between the two movies is that Jesse and Celine's story in Before Sunrise always felt somewhat unfinished. Clerks, on the other hand, didn't exactly leave viewers with any burning questions about what the future has in store for Dante and Randal. Part of the point of these characters is that, despite all their whining, they are actively resistant to change, which doesn't make them prime candidates for a sequel. And even though the film is thankfully free of too many in-jokes and callbacks to the other Askewniverse movies, in a strange way it still feels like a repeat. In interviews, Smith has said that he wanted to make a movie about being in one's 30s and finding the courage to take charge of your life, but the thing is, he's told this story before. The main characters in Chasing Amy, Dogma and, yes, even Jersey Girl all come to learn that they need to grow up and accept some responsibility. In the end, Clerks II simply doesn't offer any new variations on this theme to justify its existence.
Of course, most of the director's hardcore fans won't care about that-they'll just be happy to have Dante and Randal back onscreen jawing about the Star Wars trilogy. Few writers are as pop-culture savvy as Smith and he gets off a few good zingers here, the highlight being Randal's merciless critique of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There are some other nice moments too, including a musical montage set to the Jackson 5 chestnut "ABC" that's tremendously charming, even if the setup for it (Becky gives Dante an impromptu dance lesson in preparation for his wedding) is cheesier than anything in Jersey Girl. While Smith's affection for these characters is obvious throughout, there's a forced quality to some of the dialogue that's difficult to ignore. It's almost as if he's trying too hard to recapture the sound of the first Clerks. Hopefully, he'll take that as a sign that he's finished with the Askewniverse once and for all. Unlike Dante and Randal, Smith has come too far to end up in the same place he started from.