Clerks II: Grace in the Gross

The prickly, witty, and often raunchy "Clerks" sequel proves that grace permeates the grunge, grease and grit in the lives of suburban fast food minions.

When I was in high school I had a job selling shoes at the Randhurst Mall in Mount Prospect, Illinois. It was a step up from counterboy at Walgreen’s, but not by much: nametags, minimum wage (then a whopping $3.35) and “Can I help you?” from 5-9 p.m. I lived for the 15 minute breaks.

And for the cash. Like most of my peers, I worked retail because I wanted stuff: comic books, movie tickets, novels and, of course, video games. It was the dawn of the arcade era — I needed quarters for Joust and Defender, and some more serious bank for a ColecoVision.

Even so, for a kid retail work is largely mindless and depressing. You can do it for a while, but you always have one eye focused on breaking out and trying to forget.

Soul-Sucking Suburbia on Screen

Unless, that is, you’re Kevin Smith. Smith, the director of such films as “Clerks,” “Chasing Amy,” “Dogma” and now “Clerks II,” has made a career of returning to various circles of suburban hell — the quick stop, the video store, the mall, the fast food chain — and reveling in its stupidity and absurdity. “Clerks II” returns to the characters and terrain featured in “Clerks.” Ten years have passed. In the wake of a fire that destroyed the Quick Stop, Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) is now working, at age 33, at the fast food hamburger joint Mooby’s, taking orders for things like the “Egg-a-Moofin.'” His foul-mouthed pal Randal (Jeff Anderson) works there as well, torturing Dante and fellow employee Elias (Trevor Fehrman), an über-nerdy Christian kid who whistles on the way to work and can’t wait for the new Transformers movie.

Everything in Randal and Dante’s lives is pretty much the same as it was in “Clerks.” Dante is caught between two women: his fiancée Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach) and Becky, the Mooby’s manager (Rosario Dawson). Randal gets in fights with customers. After having been sent to rehab, drug dealers Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) are clean (and Christian), but they still sell weed outside.

The language is as colorful and shocking as ever. In Smith’s films, descriptors like “raunchy” and “sexually explicit” hardly scratch the surface. His films require a whole new lexicon, suggestions for which probably could not be printed here. Suffice to say, the film has sequences that will leave even the dirtiest of minds speechless, and maybe a little uneasy.

“In that world which seems so banal and devoid of meaning, Smith finds buckets of humor and what can only be called grace.”

Raunchy Becomes Revelatory

What’s really fascinating about “Clerks II” and all of Smith’s films, though, is the way in which 20 minutes of the most disgusting (and often funny) comments you’ve ever heard, things most people would never say at home, even alone, can suddenly open up into a genuine moment of connection or vulnerability. In “Clerks II,” what can be described here only as an uncomfortable encounter with a donkey develops into the heart of the film: an honest admission by Randal about the importance of his friendship with Dante. The moment is completely unexpected, and a little unusual, and yet it rings true.

It‘s that presence of authentic human truth in the midst of the crass and empty that makes Smith’s work unique. Like us, he looks upon slacker suburbia and sees its arrested development. It’s a world where you never really escape the issues and relationships of your high school years, and you spend most of your time just sitting there complaining about your lot in life. Smith also recognizes that that existence (in fact, most existence) does not look or function like the movies — it’s worth noting that his stars here and elsewhere often have neither big names nor the Hollywood “look.” And yet, in that world which seems so banal and devoid of meaning, he finds buckets of humor and what can only be called grace. Not in spite of that world, or alongside it, but in the midst of all that ordinariness and mess, his films suggest–that’s where joy and revelation, wisdom and connection are to be found.

God Can Work Anywhere

It’s a very Catholic insight, actually, one at the heart of our faith. For us, the world is not a fallen realm to be resisted or rejected; it is God’s creation. And neither it nor any aspect of our humanity — even the suburban or scatological (think about that for a second) — is outside the pale of God’s activity. So much does God love this world as it is and embraces us as we are that He came among us as a human being.

All of that may sound a bit cosmic for Smith, but it’s worth noting that he is a Catholic, and religious themes frequently surface in his work. So, too, do the big existential questions: Who am I? Who do I love? How do I love? What will make me happy? What am I for? His film “Dogma” was unfairly branded anti-Catholic diatribe by some, but in fact it’s a meditation on muddling through, on being faithful when there are no answers, something all believers can relate to. The resolution of “Clerks II” is equally challenging. Society might look upon the Quick Stops of life as dead ends. But, Smith insists, if you find life there, then #@*% what society thinks.

Rumor has it that “Clerks II” is the last of the films Smith will direct in this setting. (He’s done six so far.) Frankly, I hope he’ll reconsider. He could use a few new characters, but the suburban world he writes about has plenty of stories left to tell.