Reading, writing and arithmetic
Are the branches of the learning tree.
But without the roots of love every day, girl,
Your education ain’t complete.
T-t-t-teacher’s gonna show you.
–The Jackson Five, “ABC”
It’s almost like you’re back in 1994, when Clerks. first graced movie screens. Dante (Brian O’Halloran) starts his black-and-white day by pulling up the sliding guard door on the Quickstop and lo! The place is ablaze and in color. In that instant, you might think that things will change. But you’d be wrong.
In fact, much of Clerks II revisits the first movie, not only because Dante and Randal (Jeff Anderson) are still together, but also because now, even as they settle into their 30s, they’re still wondering what they’re going to do next. They haven’t exactly grown up, but Dante, for one, is at least thinking about rethinking his life choices.
Following that opening scene — which includes fire trucks and noise and a hint of self-awareness on Randal’s part (“I left the coffee pot on again, didn’t I?”) — this movie, like the first, takes place over one day. Dante and Randal get jobs as fast food counterboys at Mooby’s, the Viewaskewniverse’s version of McDonald’s. At the new joint (which still sells Freedom Fries), Randal has a new target, a younger and blatantly virginal employee named Eli (Trevor Fehrman), who clings to his faith in the Lord of the Rings trilogy the way Randal clings to his in Star Wars (Randal points out that the only, and very slow, action in LOTR is walking: “Even the fucking trees walked”). Otherwise, the incessant topic of conversation is sex in sundry forms: “going ass-to-mouth,” “barely legal pussy,” blow jobs, faggotry (again, LOTR provides fodder, per Sam and Frodo), and bestiality.
This last comes up in particular because Randal decides to order up a “donkey show” for the occasion of Dante’s departure. The following morning, he’s leaving New Jersey for Florida, with his eager tongue-kisser of a fiancée, Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach, director Kevin Smith’s wife). This impending abandonment has only upped the ante for Randal’s melancholy, tipping it into despair. But of course, he can’t say that. He can only argue with Dante and make trouble with the customers (here, Wanda Sykes as a woman who takes umbrage at Randal’s campaign to “take back” the term “porch monkey,” which his grandmother called him as a child) and snark on about their boss, the beautiful, independent-minded, way-too-smart-for-them Becky (Rosario Dawson).
It’s easy to see why Dante’s drawn to Becky: she’s adorable, lets him paint her toenails, doesn’t believe in heart-and-flowers romance, and holds her own in the boys’ bawdy conversation. She’s so cool that Randal has reason to dislike her: she threatens his one-on-one relationship with Dante. He loves Dante — “in a totally heterosexual way” — and resents the attention he pays to Becky almost as much as the fact that he’s leaving New Freakin’ Jersey to… do what exactly? How lucky for Dante that Emma’s dad has a job ready for him, not to mention a house as a wedding gift. “Not only is she pretty,” observes Becky of Emma. “She’ll make all your decisions for you.”
If you’ve seen Clerks, you know what comes next: for all the plans and preparations Emma’s making, Dante is torn. Unable to commit even though the thinks he really really wants to, he quietly looks on as Emma takes charge (she wants to order wedding invitations before they’ve quite settled on a date). As she’s set up here to be a problem (and the movie hardly needs to lay on her horribleness so thickly, as Dawson’s Becky is so obviously its preference), the kicker is not a surprise: Dante and Becky have indeed done what Randal suspects, that is, they shared one passionate night in Mooby’s kitchen; when Dante starts fussing about this too, Becky reminds him, “You weren’t the one who got mayo in your cootch.”
But he is the one who’s agitated. His decision — whether to stay with Becky or move with Emma — forms the movie’s sentimental arc, whereby he comes to terms with how he feels about Randal, and oh yes, the girls too. But the point of Clerks, either number, is talk — speedy, competitive, clever banter that recalls, in its profane way, the rhythms of old Ben Hecht comedies like Nothing Sacred or His Girl Friday. As goofy and predictable as these relationships may be (including dope-dealing duo, Jay [Jason Mewes] and Silent Bob [Smith]), they are enlivened by and in language.
This love of language and rhythm is underscored by a charming sequence (yes, Clerks II includes a sequence that might be termed “charming”). As Dante ponders his future, he displaces his fear of marriage to Emma onto trepidation over dancing at the wedding, which only allows Becky to play teacher. She takes him up to Mooby’s rooftop, where she demonstrates, a lovely, lithe performance set to the Jackson Five’s “ABC,” one of the most enchanting pop songs ever performed. Everyone within earshot of the boombox is affected, shown by an assortment of head-boppers (including a guy at a urinal, so you know the movie hasn’t gone soft) and culminating in an awkwardly heartwarming group dance number featuring nuns, cheerleaders, and young not-so-toughs.
But Clerks II is still pretending it’s not heartwarming and conventional, so it scoots away from this display almost as soon as it occurs. The wind-down scenes — some more fulminating from Randal, more fretting from Dante, the big climax of the donkey show (which features a guy in leather instead of the expected girl, returning the boys to their favorite topic yet again), and a few hours in jail. When Randal finally admits to Dante that he’s been a dick all day because “I’m looking at a future that sucks because you’re not in it anymore,” the movie gives up. It is heartwarming after all.
Clerks II – Theatrical Trailer