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Slackers, only slightly grown up

Class reunions are funny things. People show up looking for their younger selves while trying to convince everybody else they've grown up. The old rallying cries sound vaguely silly coming from men equipped with love handles. And the angst and anger and boredom of early adulthood have been replaced by the last thing a kid wants to hear about: sentiment.

All that and you wouldn't miss it for the world.

So it is with Kevin Smith's long-awaited ``Clerks II," which might better be termed a low-class reunion. The 1994 original was a blast of straight-outta-Jersey bile, shot in black and white and paid for out of the loose-penny cup by the cash register. Foul-mouthed, dirty-minded, mostly hilarious, it was Smith's way of climbing out of his own convenience-store McJob and helped kick - start the mid-'90s indie-film boom.

Smith went on to ``Chasing Amy " and ``Dogma ," got married, had a kid, then took a tumble with 2004's ``Jersey Girl ," a perfectly OK heart-tugger that had the misfortune of getting caught in the Ben Affleck/J-Lo pile-on. With ``Clerks II," the director retreats to home turf, but is Smith playing it safe or is he really interested in seeing how the old nabe has changed?

Bit of both, actually. Dante (Brian O'Halloran ), the hapless check-out drone of ``Clerks," is now 32, on the beefy side, and working at a fast-food franchise called Mooby's (the beloved Quick Stop having burned to the ground). He's engaged to an ambitious hot patootie named Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach , Smith's wife) and is on the verge of moving to Florida. At long last, maturity beckons, so why is he terrified? Is it because he yearns for his boss, Becky (Rosario Dawson ), a more grounded (not to mention gorgeous) Jersey girl?

The script, by the way, does what it can to convince us that Rosario Dawson might conceivably be found running a strip-mall restaurant. Personally, I'm not buying it. But I'm not arguing either.

While Dante is sizing up belated adulthood, his best friend, Randal (Jeff Anderson ), has regressed even further. O'Halloran looks his age, but Anderson appears to have awoken from a cryogenic sleep: same baseball cap twisted on backward , same dead-eyed contempt for the world, same delight taken in extreme political incorrectness and torturing the Normals. When Dante chides him for insulting a handicapped woman, Randal snorts, ``It's not like she's Anne Frank." Helen Keller, you mean? Whatever.

``Clerks II" notes where things in this cultural dead end have changed and where they've stayed the same. Out in the parking lot, Jay (Jason Mewes ) and Silent Bob (Smith) are still selling weed, but they're fresh out of rehab, and Jay insists (in language unfit for a family newspaper) that he has found Jesus. Of all the reassembled cast, Mewes looks as if he's been through the worst, but his devil-boy fury seems tamed here.

The movie tries to have it both ways and comes out addled and sweet. There are some scathingly funny exchanges between Randal and Dante, as the former vents against ``The Lord of the Rings " trilogy and tries to insist that the phrase ``porch monkeys" is not a racial slur. Cue Wanda Sykes as an outraged customer to straighten him out, as well as Ben Affleck and Jason Lee in pitch-perfect cameos.

At the same time, Smith impulsively throws in a musical number -- you start out shaking your head in disbelief, but it keeps getting bigger and bigger, and you finally give in -- and he slowly raises the stakes in Dante's relationship with Becky. The word ``love" is tossed around more than once, even by -- horrors! -- Randal.

Has Kevin Smith gone soft? Yes and no. True, he lets Dante pour his soul out late in the film, with a passion the one time Quick Stop clerk would have scorned (and which unregenerate ``Clerks" fans will probably ridicule). But please note that the scene takes place against the (unseen) backdrop of a live sex act with a donkey. So what if you can't go home again? According to ``Clerks II," home is wherever you park your ass.

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