Right from the beginning of Clerks III, the film opens up just like the beginning of the original Clerks (1994), as we’re back at The Quick Shop in its Leonardo, New Jersey setting, where life not only comes full circle for Kevin Smith’s iconic indie characters, but it comes full circle as a catharsis for Smith as well. After suffering from a near-fatal attack around five years ago, Kevin Smith’s whole life came into perspective. Immediately after, not only did he become a lot healthier and thinner, but he also became a lot less bitter and irritable. He even reversed his stance on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and praised P.T. Anderson. He also appears to be more humble than ever before, and he frequently brings a much more positive attitude to many other films and fandom culture. These spirits channel through after three decades, in what is certainly a victory lap and rather a swan song to his Clerks trilogy that began in 1994, spawned a sequel, Clerks II, in 2006, and now we have Clerks III, 16 years later. His latest is filled with a lot of the same humor, narrative beats, and pop culture references, but it is interwoven with some modest and sincere moments along with many of the familiar ones.
Five minutes into Clerks III, we’re at the same spot as before; the video store is now a THC dispensary shop, apparently owned by Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson), who are now middle-aged and officially co-owners of The Quick Shop. After delaying the opening of the shop to play a game of roof hockey, Dante and Randal arrive to work on their own time (as they did before), and Dante, well, is now supposed to be there, being the owner and all. We learn that tragic events have occurred since the previous Clerks II, as Dante’s ex-wife Becky Scott (Rosario Dawson) died while pregnant in a tragic automobile accident. However, Dawson still appears through Dante’s thoughts and dreams, however, as a ghost who encourages him to move through his grief and to still life all these years later. On top of the grief, Randal also collapses from a sudden heart attack that he ends up surviving, putting his life into perspective where he decides to write and direct a film of his own life that consists of his and Dante’s daily routines at Quick Stop, and the encounters they have with the customers, along with all the hilarious exchanges he remembers that they reenact for their own indie film that they shoot on a digital camera and in black-and-white.
While these unfortunate events and rather epiphanies Smith’s characters endure end up finding themselves also rehashing the material with the same humor and hitting a lot of the same notes as before, it nevertheless allows Smith the opportunity to leave a lasting legacy for his beloved indie film that has now become a trilogy. This film could provide a window for younger audiences to discover the Clerks films while pleasing Smith’s marks. At the time, Clerks was one of the most successful small-budget films ever created. It was a remarkable example of 90s indie filmmaking. It was released during a time where filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez, Richard Linklater, and Kevin Smith thoroughly made DIY indies on shoestring budgets and on-credit cards and borrowed funds that went on to be picked up by major distributors, received glowing critical acclaim, and were even released theatrically. It was there that Clerks proved one could make a grainy, black-and-white indie for less than $25,000 and get a distributor and become a smash hit. The 2006 sequel, Clerks II, upheld the same humor with a different setting of the fast food Mooby’s, and the reprised the material with some new characters and resulted in a refreshing sequel that still managed to be uproariously funny from beginning to end.
Smith’s Clerks III, however, takes a similar path to the original Clerks and his Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, but with mixed results. While back at Quick Stop, bring some more personal touches. Clerks III is really just a nostalgic throwback where you could use that time to just revisit the first two or watch something even better with that time. Sadly, the film does reek of laziness, with a lot of tiresome jokes, reprising the original’s beats to the core, and yet it still manages to deliver some comical gags and some undeniably moving moments along the way about friendship, getting second chances, regrets, and showcasing the healing process as well as the divisiveness of the creative process. In other words, Smith just propels his long-suffering characters into a film that is overly meta and self-referential as it relies on too many gags of Smith trying to recapture the same ambiance as before. The sense of debauchery, fun, and cleverness that were found in the first two is nearly abandoned in the latest.
And a number of actors and customers who appeared in the original Clerks and Clerks II reprise their roles as they play characters within the movie while finding some modern humor along the way. Some of the best laughs in the film come from Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) trying to recreate their scenes, and Silent Bob ends up becoming the cinematographer when he convinces Dante and Randal to shoot the film in black and white to give the film a surveillance camera aesthetic.
The film’s humor oscillates between blasphemous religious jokes, sex jokes, and pop culture references. The film switches into more serious gears in the first and final acts, especially when Randal suffers from a heart attack, which leads to Dante calling an ambulance, where he is put into ICU and escapes death from a blockage in his artery. In a very moving monologue, Randall tells Dante that he saw his whole life before his yes as if it was a movie, and says: “And you know what? It sucked.” Dante suggests he always wondered why he never embarked on filmmaking in all these years, and Randal has a sudden epiphany to write and direct his own movie and title it “Inconvenience”. This leads to a hilarious audition scene with many funny cameos that have to be seen to be believed. The final act is also very sincere and undeniably moving.
There are many unfunny jokes that fall flat in the film too. The ongoing gag of Elias (Trever Fehrman) transforming and reprising his role from the Jesus-loving co-worker to a Satan-worshiper only offered a few sporadic chuckles and didn’t deliver the belly laughs his character did in the second. The film also has a lot of unfunny pop-culture jokes that feel like they would have played better in the 2000s than in 2022. At its core, the film works best as a bromance between two best friends. Both Kevin O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson actually deliver some very affecting and dramatically rich scenes here, adding a nuance and layer to the characters that we haven’t quite seen before.
While it might seem like Kevin Smith has run out of ideas, and the film certainly misfires and is not quite as funny as the first two, Smith is able to pull an intermittently amusing and engaging movie out of a subpar script, thanks to his big heart. With these small triumphs, Smith is able to position Clerks III into an undeniably entertaining romp– in the broad sense, the film is certainly hit-or-miss with its humor, overstays its running-time by about 15 minutes, but it charms and deeply engages in the third act. If this is how Clerks III ends, it’s been a fun and pleasant journey that has been worth taking.