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Clerks 3, Character Assassination, and Diminishing Returns on Nostalgia
Clerks 3 is a movie with a thirty year history. It began with 1994’s Clerks, which launched Kevin Smith’s career and inspired countless more people to dream of becoming filmmakers. I am an unabashed fan of that first movie. On any given day, I’d probably say Clerks is in my top three movies of all time, if not number one. I was born too late to appreciate it during its initial release, but when you’re a cynical, directionless teenager, Clerks is timeless. It’s a black and white convenience store comedy about two slackers (Dante and Randal) who bitch at customers and talk about Star Wars for 90 minutes. What’s not to like? There’s not much more I can say about it that hasn’t been said already, but it was a major influence on my sense of humor, my worldview, and my taste in cinema. I still find it just as funny, charming, and comforting today as I did the first time I watched it.
Clerks 2 was released over a decade later in 2006, and against all odds, it’s another great flick. As ill-advised as it seemed to make a sequel to the singular Clerks, Kevin Smith managed to make it work. Smartly realizing that the first movie’s vibes could never be replicated exactly, Clerks 2 shakes things up just enough to stand on its own. It retains the gross-out jokes and pop culture squabbles, but adds more heart, more depth, and a couple of endearing new characters (oh, and it’s also in color).
The thrust of Clerks 2 is Dante’s desire to get his life together and move on from his dreary New Jersey existence. He ends up accomplishing this goal, though not quite in the way he intended. The movie ends with him and Randal staying right where they are, taking control of the Quick Stop for themselves. Randal is more than satisfied with his station in life, and Dante now has a loving wife, with a baby on the way. It’s a perfect, full-circle ending; an against-all-odds bullet dodge of a movie that wraps up the characters’ storylines and begs no follow-up.
Nonetheless, we now have a conclusion (probably) to the Clerks saga in the form of Clerks 3. And I take no pleasure in informing you that I found Clerks 3 to be what I can only describe as “a huge bummer”. Ironically, one of Clerks 3’s biggest flaws is a flaw that I share myself: It loves Clerks too much. This movie is a nostalgia grab of the highest order, every frame brimming with fan service. And okay, I kinda get it. We’re talking about a sequel to a thirty year old movie that, let’s face it, doesn’t have the biggest mass market appeal. It makes sense for Kevin Smith to pander a little to his biggest fans. After all, this is Clerks. It’s the one that started it all.
However, unlike Clerks 2, which peppers in just the right amount of nostalgia while still growing its characters, Clerks 3 sees the characters having regressed something fierce. Early on, Randal has a heart attack, making him realize that his life up to this point has amounted to nothing. To remedy this, he decides to write and direct a movie about his own life (you can probably see where this is going now). The movie that he writes is Clerks. No, not a movie similar to Clerks. It’s the same movie.
Clerks 3 commits the cardinal sin that sequels should never commit: It goes out of its way constantly to remind you of a better movie. Its entire second act is dominated by the re-filming of Clerks, only now with older actors and hacky behind the scenes in-jokes. I don’t think this plot was an inherently terrible idea. After all, the original Clerks was based on Kevin Smith’s own job at a convenience store, so in a way it makes sense that Dante and Randal might also decide to pursue a film career. Unfortunately, there’s just nothing interesting or insightful in the execution of it. There’s no commentary on the passage of time or the fragility of memory, or any greater message beyond “Hey, remember this?”. We watch the gang recreate jokes and lines exactly as they were in the original, producing a painstakingly faithful remake of a movie that in their universe, doesn’t actually exist.
In one scene, Dante and Randal are discussing funny anecdotes from their own lives to add into the script. “What about when we played hockey on the roof?”, “Hey, how about the time a guy died in our bathroom?”, etc. At no point do either of them bring up the fact that every single incident they mention happened on the exact same day, thirty years ago. Apparently, in the decade during which they originally worked at the Quick Stop, absolutely nothing funny or noteworthy occurred that we didn’t already get to see in Clerks. At this point, the illusion that this is a movie about real people has been shattered. These are cartoon characters (only not as funny as they were in the actual Clerks cartoon). They exist to parrot memorable quotes, not because the quotes hold any importance to them, but because the quotes hold importance to us. It’s the worst kind of meta, because there’s only one layer to it.
Shameless nostalgia bait aside, my real beef with Clerks 3 is the way that it treats its titular clerks. In the first two movies, it was established that Dante was the unsatisfied, cowardly guy, desperately wanting the courage he needed to improve himself. Randal on the other hand, was perfectly happy with his lot in life; All he ever wanted was to work at a convenience store and shoot the shit with his buddy.
In Clerks 3, Randal does a complete 180, acting as if this isn’t the life he’s always wanted. Even in light of a near death experience, this sudden remorse feels false. At the same time, his personality is now right back to where it started in Clerks when he was twenty-two years old. In spite of his heartfelt confession that he loves and needs Dante at the end of Clerks 2, the Randal we see in this movie is a raging asshole to everyone in sight, including, and especially, his best and only friend. It’s an unpleasant turn for the character, but worse than that, it’s boring to watch.
Meanwhile, Dante has also returned to the attitudes and behaviors of the first movie, seemingly without cause. In spite of learning his lesson (twice), he remains a whining, sniveling sad sack. In 1994, as a twenty-something, that was understandable and somewhat endearing; In 2022, in his fifties, it’s just pathetic. And again, that could be excusable if it weren’t for the fact that we’ve already watched him grow and evolve past this point on film, only to see it all frustratingly walked back. Is there any reason given for this regression? Well, kind of…
***WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR CLERKS 3 FROM THIS POINT FORWARD. DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE MOVIE AND YOU DO NOT WANT TO LEARN ABOUT MAJOR PLOT POINTS. THANKS. :)***
The real tragedy of Clerks 3 is what’s become of Dante. We learn very early on in the movie that his wife Becky (Rosario Dawson) was killed by a drunk driver mere weeks after their marriage at the end of Clerks 2. The apparent reason for this is that Rosario Dawson was too busy filming Star Wars shows to be a part of the movie (outside of a couple painfully melodramatic ghost mentor scenes). Presumably, this is the catalyst for Dante returning to his near infantile state and finding himself once again unable to move on or be happy with his life, even ten years after the incident occurred. Adding insult to injury, the movie ends with Dante suffering a heart attack of his own. Unlike Randal, he does not survive. His final moments on screen are from his hospital death bed, watching a cut of Clerks on Randal’s laptop.
The trajectory of Dante’s life is now this: After a presumably normal but boring upbringing, he worked in a convenience store for ten years, then transitioned to a fast food joint for two years, then found happiness for around a month, then wound up back at the same convenience store for another decade, before dying of a sudden heart attack. He never found love again. He never made any new friends. He never moved outside of his comfort zone. He leaves behind no legacy. The only person who really cares that he’s gone is Randal, who spent most of their time together telling him what a fuckup he is. It is a literal and figurative character assassination.
At the end of Clerks 2, the concept of Dante and Randal re-buying the Quick Stop feels triumphant. They’re taking control of their lives, taking ownership of their past, and moving forward without neglecting their roots. “Today is the first day of the rest of our lives”, Dante says with hope and optimism, as they return to their convenience store counter. It’s the final line of the movie, and at the time, it felt like a happy ending. Now, that ending is forever tainted by the knowledge that Becky is doomed to die weeks after the credits start to roll. It’s a prelude to heartbreak. Soul Asylum’s Misery playing over the credits is more appropriate than we could have guessed. I don’t think Kevin Smith’s intention was to reframe Clerks 2 as a tragedy, but it’s going to be hard for me not to see it that way in light of what comes after.
The final and most damning insult of Clerks 3 comes at Dante’s funeral, just before the end of the movie. Randal stands over Dante’s casket and eulogizes him by paraphrasing that immortal line from Clerks: “You’re not even supposed to be here today.”
That’s it. That line is now the sum total of Dante Hicks. His entire life is defined by a joke, a one-liner (that only makes sense to repeat in the context of its meta movie significance). And what did that one-liner originally signify? It was the battle cry of the self-pitying, the anthem of Dante’s own inability to take action. The emotional climax of Clerks sees Randal berating Dante for repeating this phrase ad nauseum. It so clearly illustrate what’s wrong with Clerks 3, I’m just going to include a portion of it right here:
Dante: You know what the real tragedy about all this is? I'm not even supposed to be here today!
Randal: Oh, fuck you! Fuck you, pal! Jesus, there you go again trying to pass the buck. I'm the source of all your misery. Who closed the store to play hockey? Who closed the store to go to a wake? Who tried to win back his ex girlfriend without even discussing how he felt with his present one? You wanna blame somebody? Blame yourself. "I'm not even supposed to be here today."
You sound like an asshole! Jesus, nobody twisted your arm to be here today. You're here of your own volition. You like to think the weight of the world rests on your shoulders. Like this place would fall apart if Dante wasn't here. Jesus, you overcompensate for having what's basically a monkey's job. You push fucking buttons. Anybody can waltz in here and do our jobs. You... You're so obsessed with making it seem so much more epic, so much more important than it really is. Christ, you work in a convenience store, Dante! And badly, I might add!
Clerks 3 is the worst kind of nostalgia grab; the kind that completely misunderstands the point of its own source material. Randal used to be the one friend Dante had who would tell him when he was out of line. In Clerks 3, he’s lost his way to such an extent that he now seems to think Dante’s lack of effort was admirable. It’s pointless to try to rationalize it in those terms though, because this story is no longer about Randal, or Dante. It’s not even about Kevin Smith. It’s about the audience.
When Randal repeats that line, “You’re not even supposed to be here today,” we aren’t supposed to feel emotional because of what it means to these characters. We’re supposed to feel emotional because we remember Clerks. Unfortunately, I remember it well enough to know that it was better than this.
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