I’m not even supposed to be here today!
Whether you enjoy Kevin Smith‘s Clerks or not, you can’t deny it’s place in cinematic history as a doorway towards a new landscape of micro-budgeted, dialogue-heavy features. Jason Mewes, while introducing a convention screening of the film twenty-four years later, said: “After watching it in the Quick Stop I thought that was it. I didn’t think it could play on a big screen let alone festivals to get picked up.” And why would he? These weren’t Hollywood types branching out or film students in any scholarly sense—part of the budget came from Smith’s college fund and Mewes didn’t quit his day job until Dogma five years later. They simply struck gold and witnessed the industry’s evolution towards allowing more like them inside to join the party.
And it did spawn countless copycats with varying degrees of success, each attempting to hit on the zeitgeist through everyday slackers as relatable to their generation as they were alien to their elders. Smith literally wrote what he knew by basing lead characters Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) on himself and a friend who worked at the same convenience store used as the main set. He would work his regular shift and then shoot at night—a truth masked by the in-film fact of gum-jammed padlocks rendering the metal shutters closed to never reveal time of day. Smith’s dialogue felt real because it was based on the over-inflated sense of futility mixed with an unavoidable desire for escape that he and his friends shared.
These fictional best buds are complete opposites. Dante is responsible in the way that young adults still stuck in arrested development are—fighting “the man” despite gradually becoming “the man” on a life trajectory just comfortable enough to foster the sort of laziness that forever blocks forward mobility. Randal is the anarchist and contrarian that possesses a dearth of respect for anyone except those able to appreciate his vitriol if only as a means of self-preservation against his unchecked wrath. The former is called into work on his day off, complaining about the task’s injustice even though he willingly complied knowing he was the only sucker who’d ever do such a thing. The latter is scheduled—something that’s never stopped him from avoiding actual work like a plague.
Dante works the convenience store, manning the register to facilitate the locals’ cigarette addictions while Randal berates customers at the video store until they finally decide to go to a more robust competitor. The latter continuously locks his shop to go next door and harass his friend with mundane conversations, pithy pop culture dissertations about collateral damage in the Star Wars trilogy, and targeted attacks on the other’s life choices. That third category of laugh-out-loud potential is the one that more or less provides the film’s plot: news of Dante’s ex-girlfriend Caitlin’s (Lisa Spoonauer) engagement despite a rejuvenated line of communication between the two seemingly sparking the potential for a romantic reunion. We would almost feel sorry for him if not for Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti), his current squeeze.
Will he dump the woman who obviously loves him more than he probably deserves to reconnect with the one who cheated on him the entire five years they were together? Or will he wake up to the reality that he was no longer in high school and thus no longer held to a systemic, chauvinistic standard wherein love can always somehow be better if those surface reasons our insecurities use as a means for self-implosion can be improved with a different partner? The answer lies in how optimistic Smith chooses to be as far as allowing love to prevail over lust: a choice he didn’t come to lightly with an already ambiguously bittersweet ending that almost turned pitch black (as evidenced by the first cut’s deleted final scene).
What’s great about Clerks, however, is that it doesn’t look to focus on its central conceit of grown ups growing up with any overt psychological revelation beyond serendipitous advice from unlikely sources or elaborately nightmarish scenarios helping the decision along. Dante’s love life and its metaphor for his identity as a man ready to sever ties to an immature past of skewed ambitions and desires may always be present, but it’s not something that can be fixed instantly. He must find the confidence to break free of old habits and journey outside his comfort zone even if doing so is as simple as sticking it to a boss who screwed him. This day becomes a first step towards self-awareness, each action pushing him towards the edge of a much-needed metamorphosis.
With Randal as his guide (so to speak), that journey is full of absurdly hilarious diversions. This is a guy who would do anything for his best bud, even poke and prod him to the point of violence to unlock his potential. Veronica is desperate to open Dante’s eyes to a future outside of this claustrophobic world, but his immovable sense of nostalgia and latent misogyny (a trait alongside rampant homophobia that dates the film’s “bro-culture” characters rather than condemning Smith’s script) rejects her concern. It has to come from the person you wouldn’t expect—the one you’d assume wants him to remain in purgatory by his side. But no matter how much Randal revels in his own nihilistic existence, he cares for Dante too much not to hope for better.
So they go at it as much as they pat the other’s back. They mock the eccentrics that enter their stores, embracing holier than thou attitudes even if they know it’s wrong in the back of their minds. They do their best to not be redeemable and yet they do so in a way that makes them empathetic. We acknowledge their flaws and see ourselves in them because their familiarity is undeniable regardless of the context onscreen. It helps having a slew of fantastic periphery players from producer Scott Mosier‘s Snowball (his silent final scene is priceless) to director Smith and the aforementioned Mewes as Silent Bob and Jay respectively, drug dealers simultaneously measured and wild in unforgettable interludes. They keep things moving as Dante’s epiphany approaches.
The two men at the film’s core feel three-dimensionally rendered despite our knowing little about them besides a single day’s activities. This is a testament to Smith’s ability to write skit-like gags in a way that add depth. The scenarios themselves are incongruous but their motivations are purely plot-driven no matter how tangentially. A wake gone wrong delivers a blunt guffaw as well as backstory commenting on Dante and Randal’s relationship, morality, and mindset. Everything that occurs pushes towards an open-ended resolution that’s finite in its inspirational potential. And O’Halloran and Anderson perform it with an infectious rapport that transcends any wonky line deliveries striving to hit notes within a uniquely foul yet authentic comedic rhythm. They exude charm, entitlement, and regret—a cocktail that’s simultaneously damning and (perhaps begrudgingly) relatable.