Road to Nowhere 

Kevin Smith repeats himself with Clerks II.

Kevin Smith really isn't much of a filmmaker. Watching Clerks II, his return to the characters and locations of the 1994 debut that made him a star, the obvious is underscored. One of the reasons Clerks was so good was that it was so simple. Using minimal sets and stationary cameras, the film kept the focus on Smith's strengths: his snarky, knowing dialogue and his lovingly, realistically drawn characters.

In Clerks II, Smith forgoes the style of the earlier film, with color photography and a more active camera. At one point two characters get into an argument, and the camera spins around them, not heightening the drama of the scene so much as making you dizzy. You want to leap through the frame and grab the cameraman.

Set a decade after the first film, clerks Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) are now flipping burgers at fast-food joint Mooby's, their beloved quickie mart/video store having caught fire and closed down a year earlier. Smith acknowledges Dante and Randal's stasis with his choice of opening-credit music: the Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere."

Randal is still happily stuck in Neverland, but Dante is trying to create a new life, getting ready to move south with a moneyed, blond, hottie fiancée whose family has promised to set him up with a house and job. (The movie offers an explanation why this woman has fallen for a dumpy, thirtysomething fast-food worker, but it isn't very convincing.)

The conflict in the film comes from Randal's fear of losing his lifelong best friend and Dante being torn between a new life with his fiancée and his attraction to the lovely Mooby's manager, Becky, played by Rosario Dawson. Dawson's presence seems to inspire the film's one flight of fancy, a dance sequence that starts with Becky teaching Dante how to dance up on the roof of the restaurant.

Smith peppers Clerks II with the same kind of sex jokes and potty humor that the first film was infused with, but it all seems more flat and derivative this time.

There's a gratuitous riff on racial slurs that apes similar scenes in Spike Lee movies, but Smith completely falls off the tightrope. This type of button pushing has worked for Smith before, most notably in Chasing Amy, where the respect for every different type of character put the movie on firm ground. Here, Smith seems to be taking unseemly liberties.

Even worse is a climactic scene that combines bestiality with a romantic moment of truth. (Yes, you read that correctly.) This is Farrelly brothers territory, and the scene should build through a series of outrageous moments to a crescendo of laughs. You can sense how the scene is constructed to accomplish this, but you never feel it. Smith just isn't sharp enough to pull it off.

Clerks II doesn't feel like a movie that needed to be made, especially since Smith has already made it. And I don't mean the first Clerks. I'm talking about 1997's Chasing Amy, which contained most of the qualities and tackled most of the themes of Clerks II with far greater success. In that movie, Dante's Everyman persona and Randal's jackass sidekick were inhabited by real actors -- Ben Affleck and Jason Lee. Like Clerks II, it was concerned with the plight of the standard Kevin Smith hero as he tried to overcome Peter Pan syndrome and find adult love. It had a quirky, sexually available dream girl. And, in Chasing Amy, Smith's shock language and politically incorrect bits felt earned -- genuinely funny and even insightful.

Clerks II feels like a safety move by a filmmaker unsure about where to go next. It's genial and optimistic in the same way that's helped much of Smith's work overcome its limitations. But it just isn't very good.

Clerks II

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