"Clerks III" not quite the third and final Quick Stop trip these characters deserved

Clerks III (2022)

Have you been wondering what Dante Hicks and Randal Graves have been up to in the interim? Are they even supposed to be here today? Kevin Smith must have been and seems to think so because, even after his second act of the wildly inventive swing “Tusk” and the wildly puerile miss “Yoga Hosers,” he circles back to his View Askewniverse that helped him get his foot in the door. Shot in black and white for $27,575 and released in 1994, “Clerks” was scrappy indie filmmaking at its wittiest and most verbally vulgar. But who knew it would inspire two more films out of foul-mouthed slacker best friends running adjacent convenience and video stores in New Jersey? 

One of the better comedy sequels around, 2006’s “Clerks II” made for a hilarious, if very crude, and surprisingly sweet reunion, as long as one wasn’t easily offended (but there’s no accounting for taste). But while that belated follow-up included ass-to-mouth sex talk at work and a gross-out gag involving interspecies erotica, it was wise and self-reflective, confronting the notion of being a slacker in your 40s and how it wasn’t cute anymore. If that sequel brought touchingly bittersweet and satisfying closure to these characters, “Clerks III” reopens and undoes that perfection 16 years later, so what are we doing here? In revisiting these grown-up characters who are used to standing still but now dealing with aging and mortality, nothing would please me more than to report that this return engagement is exactly what we needed from Kevin Smith. Instead, it’s more of a bummer, relying so much on playing the greatest hits and calling back “Clerks” family members and Smith's actor friends to cameo. Without too much more to add or knowing where to take the characters from here, it might've been best to leave well enough alone.

As exasperated sad-sack Dante (Brian O’Halloran) still owns the Quick Stop, arriving to open the security gates and finding gum on the locks, not much has changed. Well, Becky (Rosario Dawson), former Mooby’s manager and the love of his life, was killed (along with their child) by a drunk driver not along after the last film ended. But he still has his best friend, “chaos incarnate” man-child Randal (Jeff Anderson), living next door and working alongside him at the register. They’re still visited by perpetually loitering-while-stoned dealing partners Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith), as well as Bible-thumping virgin turned born-again Satanist Elias (Trevor Fehrman) and his own “Silent Bob,” Blockchain Coltrane (Austin Zajur). When Randal suffers a heart attack (just like writer-director Smith did himself back in 2018), he gets the idea to make a movie about his own life working at the Quick Stop (no, it’s not a porno). He’s never made one before, of course, so he and Mr. Dante hold their own casting call and do it all on their own. In the process, can Dante get out of limbo and move on with his life without Becky? Will Randal finish his movie? And will Silent Bob have his single moment of being the literal voice of reason?

While it was probably fun to make and acted as a personal catharsis for Kevin Smith and his buddies, “Clerks III” is a forced and less-frequently-funny shadow of its former self. It also strives to be affecting, and there's at least a little more success there in adding some emotional weight. Pure nostalgia and spending time with characters we like can only go so far, though, as the majority of Smith’s script is a mixed bag of observations and jokes we’ve already seen and heard from him before. It’s hard not to still be fond of these characters, even if they’re pretty much in the same spot (and not evolving has always been the point), but there’s an overall sense of desperation over this third chapter. Something about this one just feels sort of sad, and not always in the way Smith intended. 

My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to the Black Parade” playing on the soundtrack opens the film nicely in a well-edited sequence, once again capturing the morning doldrums of opening up the Quick Stop. Even with that opening, this eventually becomes a shameless nostalgia trip, recreating the first “Clerks” in black-and-white snippets and showing footage from the actual movie. Sure, some of the fan service easily scratches the itch (salsa shark!), and Smith makes sure he gets in a few digs at his own critics. A cameo-filled audition montage is actually one of the more memorable highlights, based on face recognition and line delivery alone. Amy Sedaris and Michelle Buteau also make very funny appearances, respectively, as a doctor with a sense of humor and an irate mother in the Quick Stop. Other times, the self-referential humor can be strained, lazy, and self-indulgent. A big groan replaces a would-be laugh after one character says, “Wow, meta. I’ve never seen a whole movie set in a convenience store before." The rest of this movie just feels like an extension of that in-joke.

In what has to be their swan song as Dante and Randal, Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson surely tap into their most vulnerable and rawest emotional states. Their dramatic efforts test O'Halloran and Anderson's range, but the emotions ring truer than expected. A major breath of fresh air and source of warmth in "Clerks II," Rosario Dawson is reliably poignant again. She's still able to bring grace and humor as Becky, who could always hang and talk like "one of the guys." This time, when Dante visits her tombstone, he learns she's having ass-to-mouth sex with George Washington, Carl Sagan, and Malcolm X (Triple XXX) in heaven. That’s right, Becky is no longer with us, and one wishes Smith had rewritten the character to keep her alive because having her show up in a spiritual sense feels like a thankless, almost insulting, use of Dawson. Trevor Fehrman’s Elias was an endearing oddball the first time we met him, but now, a little bit of Elias (and his supposed arc as the Devil’s concubine with an ever-changing array of goth get-ups) goes a long way. On the whole, "Clerks III" feels like it's doing a disservice to these characters. Maybe we just need to assure ourselves that we already said goodbye to them in “Clerks II.”

Grade: C

Lionsgate in partnership with Fathom Events will be releasing “Clerks III” (100 min.) exclusively in theaters from September 13th - 18th.