After years and years of building his filmography into a beloved brand, filmmaker Kevin Smith has, in a way, made his best film a direct anthesis to everything he’s made before this.
After years and years of development, Clerks III is here, and it’s all at once a celebration of Smith’s 90s indie hit and a sharp rebuttal of it, a trip down memory lane where you must see the past as it was, not as you experienced it. Having drawn direct inspiration from his near-fatal 2018 heart attack, Smith arguably brings more wisdom and humility to Clerks III than in any other film he’s ever made. He comes ready to not only dissect the trauma from that heart attack, but the very nucleus of what Clerks was. After all, Smith has clearly evolved as a storyteller from the annoyed store clerk who wasn’t even supposed to be here today to the one who gets to work early and can’t wait to see the regulars.
It’s that maturity that’s allowed film to dig deep into himself and his characters in a way that feels revelatory for what we’ve seen Smith do in the past. Jay and Silent Bob Reboot showed glimmers of what Clerks III gives in full, something all at once inspiring and raw, painful and true. In the graveyard of Nazi sausages and tusked podcasters has grown something beautiful, something we’ve all been waiting for Smith to make since he first turned on the lights at the Quick Stop all those years ago. While the filmmaker has grown a bit less focused in his craft as time has gone on, Clerks III finds Smith tapping into a growth that more than makes up for a looser style. There’s a courage present in Clerks III, a willingness from Smith to look inward and be more realistic with his characters. Smith might’ve made cleaner films in the 90s, but Clerks III might be his magnum opus. It’s the film Smith’s career has been building to, but also the one that dares to have us reframe much of what has come before this.
Clerks III starts in a familiar place, with Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) heading to work at the Quick Stop to begin another day of fielding nefarious gum salesmen, playing hockey on the roof and chatting with dopey cigarette buyers about whatever’s on their mind. It’s a routine, but one Smith clearly has much more affinity for than when he first made Clerks. In that first film, the Quick Stop was a trap, a purgatory holding the young, broke and aimless hostage, a place where you talk about Star Wars and girls with your best friend as you both wait for something better to come along. Though, all these years later, Smith colors the convenience store with more appreciation. You always wish you knew then what you know now, and Clerks III feels like Smith writing a letter to his younger self and his audience, one that cautions rushing life ahead and not treasuring those little moments with people you love, in spaces that build you. Though, Smith also cautions here against narcissism, against the selfishness that can come from casting yourself as the lead in your story, rather than seeing it like it is, an ensemble cast with plenty of support.
Smith grapples with his heart attack very directly, with Randal suffering his own near-fatal heart attack one day at work toward the start of the film. Having survived like Smith, Randal decides that he must buck against his self-prescribed meaninglessness by making a movie about his life at the Quick Stop. The lesser version of Clerks III lets that be that, Randal’s first attempt at filmmaking a meta conduit for Smith to relive his glory days and give his audience another sweet taste of View Askew. It’d simply be a message of how sweet life is, and that’d be that. That’d have been totally fine, but it would’ve robbed the project of its profundity. Instead, Smith uses Randal’s post-heart attack quest to show the dangers of not being willing to grow upward and outward. As Smith draws it up, even a heart attack can’t seem to pull Randal’s head out of his own ass with his continual obliviousness of Dante’s role in his life and general obsession with himself and his worldview.
Smith challenges with Clerks III that there’s a difference in appreciating your past and refusing to let it go. As much as the film feels like a family reunion, it also plays at times like an intervention. Smith gives his audience exactly what they’d want in a third Clerks movie, but also tells them what they desperately need to hear. Smith’s boldest decision with Clerks III is to refuse it an easy way out. It’s a film steeped in greater appreciation of life, yes, but also in greater respect for consequences. It’s as hilarious and fleet a film as Smith has made since his heyday, but also as emotionally devastating and painfully forthright as any he’ll likely ever make. Here, Dante and Randal live in a very real world, one with very real tragedies and finality abouding. This is a world where you swear and make jokes about NFTs and kites, yes, but this is also a world where you make mistakes, where you hurt people, where you die. As much as any film to come out in a post-pandemic world, Smith’s might be one of the best yet to really deal with death, to take such an uncomfortable inevitably and really say something profound about it. Though Smith is still with us, his brush with death seems to have deepened his understanding of it, and of grief and regret. It’s hard not to see Dante and Randal as dueling dragons of Smith’s recovery and enlightening as a creative and person.
O’Halloran and Anderson are both superb in different ways, the former holding the weight of the world on his shoulders and the latter having to realize he’s not the center of the universe. Smith could be faulted for letting the film’s most emotional moments spread a bit too far out of frame, of letting his actors maybe steep a bit too far into what they’re channeling. Some might call it messy. Though, it’s also painfully real. In some moments, it’s awkward to watch, but it also feels more grounded than the filmmaker has been in the past. You can’t fault him for trying to reach as far as he can, even when it may feel a little strained. This is a triple-double for Smith, the championship where he leaves it all out on the court. Not every shot goes in, but it’s hard not to see him going for broke, giving it everything he’s got, building what really might be his masterpiece.
Some wondered before Smith’s heart attack how hard he was really trying behind the camera. While a film like Tusk shows a frustrating mix of Smith’s genre prowess and his desire to get a rise out of his critics, a hallmark of his post-Jersey Girl filmography, Clerks III shows his 90s promise being harnessed into a far wiser product. Here, Smith is making a great movie with moral clarity. It’s a film that will make you laugh in familiar confines, but one that will also make you look at those confines a bit differently. For the first time in his career, Smith has delivered a startling vessel of pathos, a hilarious comedy that embraces life’s inevitabilities with a lot of gratitude and humility. After all these years, Clerks III really might be Smith’s best movie. It’s a bittersweet reminder about life’s brevity, of how every day ends with closing credits and how we are, truly, never guaranteed a sequel. Make this one count, Smith opines, and, more importantly, make it count for those around you. You really were supposed to be here today.