With Clerks III, Kevin Smith has returned to the property that made his name – with 1994’s first instalment being made in black and white, funded through credit cards, and shot at night, whilst he was working during the day at the same convenience store in which the film was set. By 2006’s sequel, it was clear that – although the end product was still fun – he was falling somewhat out of love with filmmaking. In his live Q&A shows he talked of having to reach back in time to remember the man he had been when creating the Askewniverse in which most of his movies were set.
As he was approaching his forties, he seemed to struggle to identify with the same sensibilities that made his name. By the mid-2000s he was back in film-making mode, writing for himself in a wider range of styles, but still often talking of fresh entries both for Mallrats and Clerks. Somewhere in this period he penned a script for the latter, in which the Quick Stop store was to have been destroyed by a hurricane.
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Then, in early 2018, whilst between back-to-back stand-up comedy performances, Smith suffered a massive heart attack. His luck was to be around the corner from an emergency room when it happened, as he was informed by doctors that the type of blockage he had led to death in most cases. Committing to a change in lifestyle, the experience appeared to refresh him, leading to the original script being canned, and a new, more personal story being penned.
So, we pick up with Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) still running the Quick Stop, with Elias (Trevor Fuhrman), their devoutly religious colleague from Mooby’s (in Clerks II), working alongside them. It is revealed that Dante’s girlfriend, Becky (Rosario Dawson), died early in their relationship, with their unborn child perishing with her. Although 16 years later, Dante has never recovered from this, and he continues to be a highly stressed presence. The men spend their days as they always have, discussing popular culture, and poking fun at each other.
Whilst listening to Elias’ religious ramblings one day, an irked Randal suffers a heart attack – the same type of attack (known as the widowmaker) that Smith experienced himself. Rushed to hospital, he is told that he is lucky to be alive, whilst Dante is told by the surgeon (Amy Sedaris – also taking part in a long discussion of Star Wars with the men, a fun diversion, given the actress appeared in The Mandalorian) that, as his lifestyle and age are similar to Randal’s, that he should get his heart checked too. She warns him also that men of Randal’s age normally experience some depression after such an episode, and that he should watch out for his friend.
With stents freshly fitted, a fit-again Randal returns to the Quick Stop somewhat obsessed with his lack of achievement in life. In response to these feelings, he decides to make a film about life at the Quick Stop. Similar to the making of the Clerks, the film will be shot at night, with gum in the locks of the shutters to the windows being the same in-universe explanation for it being dark in the store. After a long – and cameo-laden (Ben Affleck, Freddie Prinze Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar, and others) – casting sequence, the men decide that they will play the thinly veiled versions of themselves, and the store’s real customers will appear in the film. As in real-life, Jay (Jason Mewes) has to be taught how to play himself, and there will be re-enactments of events that they have experienced over the years, including those we saw in the first film.
As the often-very funny filming sequences progress, Randal proves to be an overbearing, micro-managing presence, to the clear annoyance of Dante, while Elias has turned to worshipping Satan, as he believes it was his religious diatribe that caused his friend’s health scare in the first place. Meanwhile, Randal gets to the cemetery to visit Becky when he can, and is frequently visited by her spirit (or, at least his imagining of her), whilst she is telling him that he needs to get on with his life while he still has time. As filming moves towards its conclusion, our two leads find their friendship tested by Randal’s attitude, Dante’s relentless negativity, and the financial pressure trying to make the film has put on them.
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As can be seen, Clerks III stands as Smith’s most personal film for many years. Although the recent Jay and Silent Bob Reboot was a blast of nostalgia for his glory years, the end results were mixed, and Smith’s positioning of himself in the story towards the end a little too knowing, and not particularly funny. By contrast, this is a love letter both to his earliest characters, and – in Jay and Silent Bob – his most enduring. As a man reborn after a brush with death, the idea of Randal taking his chance to leave a mark on the world, whilst allowing us to revisit past events through a new lens, work very well indeed. Although remaining a world filled with dick and fart jokes, it sits comfortably, without tonal jarring, alongside characters dealing with ageing, mortality, and coping with ideas of legacy.
Where it also scores highly is in having new jokes to tell, rather than being the simple rehash of film one that we may have feared we might be given. Instead of continually hitting us over the head with the meta nature of the work, it integrates its older references into a fresh story that speaks to the writer’s own experiences and outlook. Some of the references, indeed, just sit in the background unremarked upon – such as the customer (in this case Smith’s own daughter, Harley) sat on the floor checking all of the cartons of milk. This is a far stronger work than Kevin’s most recent visit to this universe, and it is clearly a story made with real passion and conviction. It is to be hoped that this is the last visit to the Askewniverse, as he really isn’t the right filmmaker for that world anymore, but that he managed to make it work so well in his early-fifties, and not like a re-tread of a twenty-something’s outlook on life is to be celebrated, and immediately elevates it over the decent-enough first sequel. Recommended.