Clerks III: The ‘Avengers: Endgame’ of the View Askewniverse
Updated: Oct 28, 2022
AGP reviews the third and final chapter in the Clerks series, recently released for digital purchase. [Spoilers]
Long before I ever learned of Clerks, my journey into the world of Kevin Smith began with his 1995 buddy comedy Mallrats. In spite of its comparative campiness to his other works (which I would later discover), the movie instantly captivated me with its unabashed engagement with 90s nerd culture. It might be tough for today’s Gen Zers to believe in this Marvel-saturated, post-Disney+ climate, but there was a time when wearing an Avengers t-shirt wouldn’t exactly win you friends—at least in the experience of this millennial. Nevertheless, I grew up reading comic books, playing video games and watching sci-fi and superhero cartoons and movies. So, when Smith created a world populated by characters attuned to these very subjects, but with the crasser wit and edginess of the era, I was a smitten. “You fuckers think just 'cause a guy reads comics he can't start some shit?” exclaimed Brodie, the supporting role funny man of Mallrats. And with those words, he spoke for a generation. Yes, one could argue that Smith—and by extension his “View Askewniverse” of characters—won over audiences by simply being well ahead of their time.
Image provided by Iron Ox
Following Mallrats, I actually worked my way backwards from Dogma to Chasing Amy to Smith’s original Sundance-winning 1994 indie comedy Clerks. At the time, I was just beginning to dabble in the unusual art of screenwriting and was struck by the film’s economic use of one location: a convenience store. Like those bolder Seinfeld episodes that cover the comings and goings of a restaurant waiting area or parking garage, Clerks is all about the intrigue around a specific setting, a study in the politics and pretensions behind the clerk-customer relationship. Smith capitalizes on this dynamic by pairing together two very unique personalities, Dante Hicks and Randal Graves, the epitomical yin and yang of odd couples. Dante is the reluctant but resigned servant to the Quick Stop’s shoppers, futilely pushing the same boulder up the mountain day by day like Sisyphus. The only force chipping away at his façade of congeniality is Randal, who works (in the loosest of definitions) for the attached video rental store RST, but spends most of his time with Dante debating the most un-pressing questions of the ages (e.g. the ethical conundrum of the independent contractors who potentially died on the Death Star) or else badgering both him and the Quick Stop’s patrons in highly amusing ways. At the same time, the pair’s petty exchanges and blowouts speak volumes about the human experience, those stubbornly held ideas about ourselves and the forces (often within) that resist any course correction. For all his lighthearted treachery—including pinning the fine for a child cigarette sale on poor Dante—Randal challenges his friend to be better, to look at himself frankly and find some purposeful direction in life. With its subtle but weighty plot and black-and-white security-footage-like palette, Clerks is a remarkably real film, and possibly Smith’s most authentic feeling to date.
Smith picks up again with Randal and Dante in the 2006 Clerks II, now reduced to fast food service workers at the local Mooby’s after Randal left the coffee pot on one night and inadvertently burned down the Quick Stop and neighboring RST Video. In a broader sense, the duo confront the existential crisis that comes with creeping deeper into their 30s, along with another hour and a half of raunchy trash talk, flippant sexual innuendos (including a cringeworthy donkey sex show) and, of course, the sort of niche pop culture lore one would expect. Among the additions to the mythology, Dante lands himself a wife in Becky Scott, purchases the reconstructed Quick Stop and RST Video with Randal and hires their meek but endearing Mooby coworker Elias to the team. Producing a satisfactory sequel to your first (and in Smith’s case, arguably best) film is no easy feat, but Clerks II earned an eight-minute standing ovation at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival.
The cast of Clerks II (2006)
And now, over a decade and a half later, we have the third and final installment in the series, Clerks III. Since the shenanigans of their second outing, Dante and Randal are very much still creatures of habit, dividing their time between hockey matches on the roof of the Quick Stop and enjoying (now legal) marijuana from stoner duo Jay and Silent Bob’s dispensary (formerly RST Video). Elias has a new friend named Blockchain and sells NFT kites featuring the iconic “Buddy Christ” logo from Dogma. At first glance, it seems the modest aspirations of the previous chapters were finally realized. But for fans of Dante’s proposal at the end of Clerks II, the news that a drunk driver killed his newly-wed wife Becky and unborn daughter Grace is a sobering reality. What’s more—Randal faces his own midlife crisis after experiencing a massive heart attack and vows, in the most forth-wall-breaking meta way possible, to make a movie about his life at the Quick Stop with Dante. In essence, he’s going to make Clerks.
Herein lies the recipe for much of the film’s esoteric humor—a series of vignettes recreating many of the original film’s (and even some of the second’s) most iconic moments, and with virtually every cast member in tow. And while the transitions from sophomoric “dick jokes” to Dante’s effusive pining over his late wife are arguably stark and sudden, they never felt overly jarring to me. Like an early Adam Sandler movie of the Big Daddy kind, there is an equal commitment to both the humorous and the heartfelt, and possibly something even deeper owing to the franchise’s longevity. Each installment is a snapshot of the human experience across decades, layered with lessons about coming to terms with each chapter of life. In some respects, it sooner brings to mind Richard Linklater’s Before movies, which follow a romantic pair at nearly-decade-long increments. With Dante and Randal, Smith has crafted his own Jesse and Céline, a mirror reflection of relationships that challenges our understanding of how those pairings endure across time, tragedy and inevitable change. That Brian O'Halloran (Dante) can switch emotional gears so effortlessly in his private asides with Becky, appearing now as a ghost hoping to rally him through his grief, only speaks to the strength of the film. Real life is often a dance between the banal and the severe (e.g. Randal worrying about exposing the true undersize of his phallus in pre-op vs. the heaviness of a heart attack). The Clerks films are often all the more genuine due to this very human swing of the pendulum from the crass to the corny.
Once while attending a writers’ workshop for a management company, the organizer introduced us to the concept of a character’s dictio—in latin, quite literally meaning “a saying.” As applied to screenwriting, he was referring to the verbal expression a character uses regularly throughout a story, which is generally tied to their false life lesson. The arc of the character comes from overcoming this saying and realizing the necessary truth. One iconic example would be Rick Blaine’s woeful refrain from Casablanca, “I stick my neck out for nobody!”—his excuse for refusing to aid the refugees and others that pass through his nightclub. But in the end, Rick becomes the unlikely hero who does in fact stick his neck out for the “nobodies” of the world, giving his dictio a certain perfect irony. There is only one other movie that comes to mind when I think of an equally polysemous line of dialogue, and that’s Dante’s mantra from the original Clerks: “I’m not even supposed to be here today!” Besides becoming the perfect fodder for parody (even by Smith himself), it epitomizes this exact journey from the false life lesson to revelation. In a very literal sense, Dante was called in to work unexpectedly, but as Randal later points out, he’s there “of [his] own volition.” It is his choice (and his alone) to come in that day, and the false life lesson is all about his unwillingness to address is own lamentable lot in life.
In keeping with this story device, Clerks III comes full circle by giving Randal his own dictio in three simple words: “I almost died.” Like Dante’s catchphrase, the statement is literally true, but it’s also an emotionally vacuous quip meant to guilt-trip his best friend back into compliance whenever Randal feels him drifting away from his duties with the film—even as Randal pressures Dante to recreate memories that include Becky. It’s not until Dante’s emotional explosion in the film’s third act that Randal finally faces the truth: while he might have almost died, others quite literally did. And what’s more—Dante’s life, pitfalls and all, is irrevocably tied to Randal’s. It would be enough for some that Randal accepted responsibility for his insensitivity, but he takes it a step further. After Dante works himself up into having his own heart attack (an event foreshadowed earlier) and Randal endures a proper lambasting from Elias, Randal goes home to cut his movie, but with one notable change: Dante is now the lead. As Randal comes to realize, Dante was always the protagonist of the story of their lives, the Luke Skywalker of their Star Wars. And in a painfully beautiful scene not unlike the ending to Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, we watch a tearful Randal screen his finished movie to a bed-stricken Dante in the hospital. The film on screen grabs shots from the original Clerks, paying homage to both the franchise and Randal’s love for his fading friend. At the same time, we are treated to a scene of Dante enjoying the film arm-in-arm with Becky in a movie theater as he peacefully passes away. Whether you’re a longtime fan of this trilogy or a newcomer, I can’t imagine anyone with a dry eye after that sequence.
The passage of time, bonds of friendship, love and loss and—yes—perhaps one too many weed references, all make Clerks III the strange, funny and remarkably moving hour and fifty-five minutes of cinema it is. For the Askewniverse, and in keeping with the nerdy pop culture undercurrent in all of his films, Smith has crafted his own Avengers: Endgame, a final hurrah for many of his most beloved characters after taking them to new and previously unreached emotional depths. Like Tony Stark gasping his last breath or an aged Captain America, we were delivered one final and poignant emotional beat with Dante Hicks and Randal Graves and will doubtfully seem them again. But for this longtime fan, the feeling is one part bittersweet and the other gratitude. Perhaps the best aspect of the experience is the personal growth, not just of Kevin Smith through the stages of his life, but of the audience mirroring his evolution in real-time. After nearly 30 years of storytelling, it should come as no surprise that Smith, and the audience alike, have grown up quite a bit!
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