If you excavated Kevin Smith’s groundbreaking 1994 debut Clerks for individual quotes just to prove its genius, you would probably convince a lot of people who haven’t seen the film that it’s a cinematic masterpiece. So often is the script filled with some truly golden moments, but alas Clerks might be a case study for why they say, “We don’t watch scripts, we watch movies.”
The film opens with a phone ringing in a pigsty of a room, followed by a closet door opening, spilling out our protagonist Dante (Brian O’Halloran). Being awoken from sleep, he answers the phone, which is buried inside his laundry basket. It’s his boss asking him to come into work on his day off. Dante works at a small convenience store, where next door his best friend Randal (Jeff Anderson) works at a video store. Randal spends most of his time hanging out with Dante in the market, with his own store ostensibly closed.
Throughout the day, they complain about customers, pester customers, offend customers, chase customers out, all amidst the backdrop of Dante’s love life. His current girlfriend, he just found out, has been with quite a few men in her past. Meanwhile, he reads in the newspaper that his serially unfaithful ex-girlfriend of 5 years is engaged to be married. He didn’t even know she was seeing anyone. Now with himself in the middle of a sort of crisis, he wrestles with his own role in his situation.
According to Randal, he complains all the time about his life, but never does anything about it. Dante is quick to blame everyone else for his sucky day—and life (“I’m not even supposed to be here!”). He’s never inherently wrong, although that’s kind of the point.
Writer/director Kevin Smith does a great job making the audience side with Dante in his resentment of those around him. Randal neglectfully sells a pack of cigarettes to a 4-year-old, thus getting Dante stuck with a $500 fine. Dante’s boss never shows up to work at noon like he promised—in fact, Dante finds out that he left town entirely, thus making our protagonist miss his hockey game at 2 p.m. Everything seems to be setting up Dante to fail, and we, like him, are blaming everyone else in this movie. However, it’s Randal, in his final plea to Dante and the audience, who explains how that’s not really what’s happening.
Bad things in life are bound to happen, often when it’s inconvenient. But it’s how we own our situation—not necessarily how we change it—that allows us to find fulfillment from it. Dante doesn’t want to make waves, but then complains that his life sucks. In a simpler form: Don’t be willing to do someone a favor if you’re just going to complain about it the whole time. Smith isn’t always crystal clear with his message, but he gets there in his own way.
Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith)—the real stars of the film—are the drug dealers on the corner outside. They come in, don’t bother Dante much, and offer the occasional nuggets of wisdom. Perhaps it’s the disparity in scope between Clerks and the rest of Smith’s View Askewniverse, but the pair feels like they’re from a different movie entirely here.
The filmmaker always seems to have the right idea and the raw potential, but his skill is obviously still unrefined in his first outing here. Clerks often feels like a student film. The blatant decision making in both the editing and writing tends to take us out of the picture a lot. It’s as though the pontificating dialogue can’t wait to be spoken so everyone can see how much wisdom the writer has. And he just might, but the words never have any realistic flow, like if Woody Allen had written for Dawson’s Creek. Big words are used, and even bigger are the analyses. Characters’ word choices are forced in a certain way to obviously set up clever responses. Everyone is astute, yet just as lost and confused as the next guy. And Smith’s skill is in how he still makes us see through all of it to the treasure underneath.
While his dialogue may be mechanical, his episodic plot is oddly satisfying in its off-kilter flow, even if not always fully realized. We’re usually required to suspend belief to buy into the fact that, coincidentally, all this craziness is just happening to Dante today. He complains about things like he’s never experienced them before—but then the joke is supposed to be that this is the plight of a supermarket clerk, thus seeming to contradict the singular circumstance that is this movie’s premise.
Luckily, everything comes together in the third act and the story finishes very strong. Clerks isn’t as rough of a watch as it definitely could have been, and that’s mostly due to the stronghold of Smith, for better or for worse, who would go on to have quite a successful career ahead of him.