Grappling with middle age, “Clerks III” turns out to be unexpectedly sentimental and nostalgic, reflecting that writer-director-editor-co-star Kevin Smith inherently recognizes this will likely be the gang’s final visit to Quick Stop Groceries. If so, it’s an uneven if gentle way to hang out the “We’re closed” sign.
The original “Clerks” in 1994 was a sort of master class in micro-budgeted filmmaking, down to the black-and-white cinematography and claustrophobic setting, as two guys killed time in the convenience and video stores where they worked. Smith revisited the title a dozen years later, upgrading the casting with Rosario Dawson, but it took an off-screen trauma that makes it all deeply personal to put what feels like a somewhat unnecessary bow on the whole package.
Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) are still up to their old tricks when the movie begins, doing things like closing up to play hockey on the roof and debating everything from movies to religion to both simultaneously, such as Randal saying that he prays to Conan the Barbarian’s god, Crom, mostly to irritate those around him.
Things take a rather abrupt and darker turn, however, when Randal suffers a near-death experience, clearly inspired by Smith’s own cardiac episode in 2018. The heart attack prompts Randal to engage in some out-of-character soul searching. Looking for a sense of purpose, he decides to make a movie about their lives, shrugging off the logical question, “Who’d want to watch that?,” and explaining his knowledge of film by saying, “I worked in a video store for 20 years.”
“Clerks III” thus becomes a sort of meta redo of the making of “Clerks,” with plenty of callbacks and cameos, the latter cleverly linked to auditions for the film within the film. And yes, Dawson returns, although not exactly in the way one might expect.
The weightlessness of the material was, initially, basically the point, which makes the reach for more emotional heft ungainly. Smith, who moonlights as a cinematic super-fan, obviously still harbors enormous affection for these characters and this world, which is reinforced by his monologue over the closing credits, tacking what amounts to a DVD extra onto the movie. (The film is receiving a brief theatrical run before taking its logical place on the current version of video-store shelves, digital and streaming.)
Those less invested in “Clerks” will be rewarded with a few amusing lines scattered along the way to go with the disarming pathos woven into the proud immaturity and irreverence.
Frankly, “Clerks” really isn’t the kind of title meant to have II’s and III’s attached to it, but Smith has delivered an affectionate ode to the film he made that launched his career, as well as those who have been with him, through better and worse, over the course of the nearly three decades that have seen video stores disappear from view.
“Clerks III” will play exclusively in theaters via Fathom Events from September 13-18. It’s rated R.