I’m at a crossroads with writer/director Kevin Smith. Well, I might actually have already switched sides but don’t want to fully admit it yet even if it’s self-evident. I’ve written about this before but Smith was one of those major cinematic voices that helped shape my sense of indie film and even comedy during my formative teenage years. I became a diehard fan, watched every movie several times and had all their interconnected Easter eggs memorized, and I’ve seen the man in person three times, one time recorded for a college Q&A DVD release. In short, I was most definitely a Kevin Smith super fan. Then over the last five years or so, things began to change, or more accurately my perception of Smith’s movies began to change. The attempts at humor were strained, obvious, and gassed, and it felt like his biting wit and raunch had transformed into mawkish nostalgia. The man in his twenties who made comedies I identified with and loved became a man in his forties with different priorities and a different perspective. He evolved. However, I am no static creature, and I too was evolving, and my fanfare for Smith’s comedy sensibility has transformed into more of a pained grimace. I re-watched Dogma in 2019 and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back in 2021, as well as its second-banana imitation Jay and Silent Bob Reboot in 2019, and my assessment was only reaffirmed with each movie: I’ve outgrown my old influence. As a big screen storyteller, Smith has become more and more insular, inaccessible, and beholden to eroding fan-service, almost like he too is trying to bid goodbye to his own universe of characters. Maybe that will be the big reveal, Smith putting all his toys back away while he still can.
Clerks III is a return to the old QuickStop convenience store in Red Bank, New Jersey, last seen in 2006 with friends and malcontents Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and Randall (Jeff Anderson) as the new owners. Clerks II seemingly ended on a moment of triumph, of the guys returning to their roots but also stepping up, assuming ownership responsibilities. However, many can also view the ending as a darker indictment on what the future held for these men. Sixteen years later, what have these men accomplished? That’s the thrust of this third film, following Randal’s brush with death from a heart attack (based upon Smith’s own life-threatening experience). He re-evaluates his life at 50 and yearns to make a movie about his life and his personal experiences, which just happens to be life in service at the QuickStop. He bands together with Dante as producer and they put together a ragtag crew, including old buddies now selling their own state-approved brand of bud, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), to make their movie.
In many ways, Clerks III is like a remake of Clerks with the characters of Clerks making their own version of Clerks only thirty years removed from the actual scenes of Clerks. There’s a bit of a snake eating its own tail feeling; many scenes are re-creations of moments from the original Clerks and with the same actors. It’s slightly fun to see even the smaller non-actors come back to recreate these moments, but it also makes the movie feel like an extended high school reunion (“Oh look, that guy lost his hair.”). If you were not a fan of Clerks, well you shouldn’t really be watching the third film in the series, but if you didn’t have an attachment to these characters and this odd world, seeing older versions of former fleeting characters, from the Chewlie’s Gum rep to the angry ruse-baiting video store customer or the woman who manually masturbates caged animals, would feel like flipping through someone else’s photo album, devoid of whatever nostalgic or emotion was intended.
As a lifelong fan of Smith’s filmography, or at least a former lifelong fan now transitioning to accepting a parting of ways, it’s neat to see this reunion of sorts, but it’s also ultimately pointless from a narrative standpoint. Smith is treading the same ground now with irony and distance. Actually, the irony gives way more to sentimentality. It’s not an insult to say that Smith has gotten increasingly softer as he’s gotten older, blunting much of his comedy edge. He comes across as a sincere man who really cares for the people in his life, including these very people that contributed their time and efforts in 1992 to help make a young man’s dream come true. I understand his desire to pay back all the little people, to check back with them one more time, and to have Clerks III serve as a love letter to those who were there from the very beginning. If you’re plugged into this universe, you might smile and you might also feel some of the love.
There are famous cameos to balance out the lesser known faces from the original Clerks. You’ll see Ben Affleck hamming it up, Justin Long doing a funny voice, Fred Armisen grasping for something to do, and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s first film role since 2012 and first live-action film role since 2009’s Possession (Gellar was a voice on Smith’s Masters of the Universe animated series on Netflix). The two big additions from Clerks II also return. Trevor Fehrman, returning as the socially awkward coworker Elias, is the funniest part of the movie as his character goes through a spiritual crisis. He feels let down by Jesus and commits himself to Satan, and his runway show’s worth of crazy outfits and cosplays throughout the movie is the funniest joke that never even bears mentioning, which only makes it funnier (he too has his own Silent Bob-esque quiet sidekick played with good spirits by Austin Zajur). Elias was the voice of a younger generation of Internet fandom in Clerks II, allowing Smith his opportunity to criticize modern geek pop-culture, like the Star Wars prequels and Lord of the Rings. That doesn’t really happen in Clerks III despite 16 years of Dante and Randal’s cinematic absence. Smith doesn’t even nibble or good-naturedly rib any pop-culture landscape. Even the jokes about NFTs feel hesitant and wishy-washy and lazy. Smith was defined by his ribald wit and hyper-literate dialogue, and now his comedy has become inane slapstick and pandering nods meant to serve as a replacement for an absent punchline. It’s disappointing how little the comedy registers now.
The biggest addition to the Clerks trilogy was Rosario Dawson, now even more popular as she’s firmly solidified in the Star Wars TV empire. I figured she would have been written out of the franchise as her availability was going to be far more limited. It’s not a spoiler considering it’s revealed within the first minute or so, but Dawson’s character, Becky, who was pregnant with Dante’s child and this presented a new route for his future, is dead. Not only is Becky gone but she died in 2006 from a drunk driver, which means that her unborn child with Dante also died, though this is never touched upon and that seems truly bizarre because much of Dante’s characterization in this movie will be his prison of grief he’s been unable to break from. It’s been 16 years and Dante has not moved on, and I wish more of this was explored thoughtfully. He views himself as a man stuck, now in his 50s, and having missed his off-ramp to another and better life. Without more careful attention, it can come across like a schlub holding onto his grief as a mistaken form of identity. Even that description could be interesting, but you’re not going to get that level of drama in something like Clerks III. Dawson does have a few appearances as a ghostly memory trying to help Dante move on, though if this is the case, I feel like she should be reaching some kind of breaking point after 16 years of effort.
By the end of Clerks III, it’s clear that Smith intends for this to be the concluding chapter, sending off these characters as reflections of his own film history. The focus of the final act is far more dramatic, as the act of retelling one’s life story as a movie becomes its own way of sharing the love and admiration of a decades-long friendship. I don’t quite think Smith gets to the dramatic heights he’s reaching for, even when some pretty significant and surprising events play out. Too much of the movie is like watching a low-budget remake of Clerks thirty years late, and while I’m a sucker for movies about the making of movies, and those fun found families of creatives banding together, the structural vehicle and conceit for Clerks III left much to be desired. If you remember the scenes of 1994’s Clerks, watching Clerks III is like reliving them as a strange Lynchian dream where the edges are smudged and everything isn’t quite as it should be. At this point, a new Kevin Smith movie is made strictly for the most diehard of fans. I can see that ever-shrinking pool of fans warmly smiling and chuckling from the movie but more in nostalgic recognition of time gone by. It’s nice to revisit these characters, as I’ve been eager to see what life has dealt them since Clerks II. You can feel Smith’s affection for these people, the ones who catapulted him into fame, but the movie is too backward-looking and uninterested in its own comedy as Smith winds down.
Nate’s Grade: C
Richard Kelly is a talented writer/director who scored big with his first film, modern cult classic Donnie Darko. I was in love with the ominous yet inspired Darko from the moment I saw it, which, not to toot my own horn, was February 2002, way before the cult got started. I have been eagerly anticipating Southland Tales, Kelly’s writing/directing follow-up, even after its notorious 2006 Cannes Film Festival reception where critics readily cited terms like “indulgent,” “bloated,” “messy,” and, “disaster.” My love of Darko shielded me from such negative affronts, and so I watched Southland Tales undaunted and with as open a mind as possible. The regrettable truth is that even after Kelly shaved off a half-hour from the Cannes version, Southland Tales is every bit a mess as had been advertised; however, it is occasionally worthwhile and subversively ambitious.
Kelly begins his massive yarn with a nuclear attack on Abilene, Texas in 2005. America is plunged into World War III and fights, simultaneously, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and North Korea, while the conflict with Iraq continues. The Internet is now in control of the government, who passes sweeping security measures, chief among them IdentiCorp. This government arm uses thousands of trained cameras to keep watch over the lives of ordinary citizens, including when they duck into public bathroom stalls. Violent neo-Marxist groups have placed cells around the country, ready and willing to strike to destroy the last vestiges of American capitalism.
Fuel resources have almost run dry and the world looks to scientist Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn, hamming it up and having a good time) for a solution. The Baron has devised a substance known as Fluid Karma, which works under the properties of the churning oceans and will produce a radius of power. Fluid Karma also works as a powerful hallucinogenic drug and the Baron tested it on wounded Iraqi vets like Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake). Coldly narrating the film, Abilene stands guard outside the Baron’s laboratory and also peddles the drug on the side.
It is the summer of 2008 and the presidential election is months away. The Republican candidate, Senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne), is in crisis mode. His spoiled daughter (Mandy Moore) is frantic because her husband, actor Boxer Santaros (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), has vanished. He’s awakened in the California desert with amnesia and shacked up with porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar); the duo has written a prophetic screenplay called “The Power.” Krysta and a pair of tattoo babes (Nora Dunn) plan to blackmail the Frost campaign with video of Boxer frolicking with the adult movie star. They want the campaign to endorse Proposition 69, which would rescind the encroachments on civil liberties by the U.S. government.
A group of neo-Marxists, led by pint-sized Zora Carmichaels (Cheri Oteri), have kidnapped a police officer, Roland Taverner, and are using his twin brother Ronald (both played by Seann William Scott) to frame the police and Boxer. And I haven’t even begun to talk about Senator Frost’s wife (Miranda Richardson), the president of Japan having his hand lopped off in a loony sequence, the frequent inverting of T.S. Elitot’s quote about the way the world ends, a commercial where two cars literally have sex, and a rip in the space-time continuum that people are putting monkeys inside.
Extraordinarily messy and scattershot, Southland Tales has 1000 ideas rolling around inside without much traction. It’s as if Kelly thought he was never going to get the chance to make another movie again so he crammed every thought and topic he ever had into one 144-minute cross-pollinated jumble. The movie veers wildly and chaotically from political satire, to crude comedy, to sci-fi head-trip, all the way to Busby Berkley musical. There’s a little of everything here but few of the dispirited elements mesh and the film runs a good two hours before any sort of overall context becomes remotely approachable. One second the movie is satirizing a Big Brother control state and the loss of American civil liberties, and in the next second a character is threatening to kill herself unless Boxer allows her to orally pleasure him. You got, among other things, zeppelins, global deceleration, perpetual motion machines, Zelda Rubenstein, drugs, holes in time, twins, a murderous Jon Lovitz, ice cream trucks that house military-grade weapons, blackmail, Kevin Smith in a ZZ Top beard and no legs, reality TV, the American national anthem cut together with an ATM robbery, Biblical Revelation quotes courtesy of Timberlake, and, why not, the end of the world. What does it all mean? I have no idea but I credit Kelly for his ambition.
Plenty of stuff happens for a solid two hours but little to nothing feels like it amounts to anything, and several subplots just get dropped. There are long stretches where I cannot explain even “what’s happening” from a literal description. This sprawling, magnificently self-indulgent meditative opus consists too much of side characters running into each other and having vague, pseudo-intellectual conversations that go nowhere. There are a lot of nonsensical speed bumps in this narrative. Sometimes the screen is just nothing but a series of newscasts overloading the audience with details on the reality of this alternative America; it’s filler. The conclusion is rather frustratingly abrupt; after slogging through two-plus hours of oblique questions it finally seems like we may reach some tentative answers, and then Kelly pulls the pin on his grenade and collapses his tale. Krysta tells Boxer in a moment of clarity, “It had to end this way.” Really? It did? This way?
The movie feels like a giant garage sale with scattered treasures hard to find but buried beneath loads of kitsch. Kelly clearly has bitten off more than he can chew and yet there is a bizarre undeniable power to some moments here. Roland (or is it Ronald) Taverner watches his mirror reflection a step behind; it’s unsettling and eerie and very cool. Timberlake has a drug-induced dance number where his scarred (both physically and mentally) Iraq veteran character is covered in blood, drinks beer, and lip synchs to the Killers’ song “All the Things I’ve Done,” which has the pertinent lyrics, “I’ve got soul but I’m not a solider,” and “You gotta help me out.” All the while, leggy dancing girls in blonde bobs strut and coo around him. It’s weird and tangential to the plot but it has a certain draw to it. The conclusion featuring the Taverner twins seeking forgiveness even generates some redemptive quality. Religious questioning and the philosophy of souls occupying the same realm plays a heavy part and gives the film an approachable reflection that tickles the brain, even if Timecop, sort of, visited the same ground, albeit secular, first (you’ll kind of understand when you see the movie). Southland Tales is grasping at profound and relevant messages, and yet some images achieve this easily, like a toy soldier crawling on the L.A. streets or a tank with Hustler stamped across its side for product placement. These simple images are able to transcend Kelly’s pop manifesto.
None of the actors really equip themselves well with the outrageousness. Scott comes off the best but that’s because his character(s) is/are the only figure(s) the audience is given a chance to emotionally connect with. The Rock, listed for the first time simply as Dwayne Johnson, is an actor that I genuinely like and think has tremendous comic ability, as evidenced by 2003’s The Rundown. With this film, however, he comes across too constantly bewildered and shifty, like he really needs to pee and cannot find a bathroom. Gellar is woefully miscast and I think she knows it given her leaden performance. Southland Tales is the kind of film where every role, even the two-bit nothing parts, is played by a known face, be it Christopher Lambert, John Larroquette, Curtis “Booger” Armstrong, Will Sasso, and a horde of Saturday Night Live alums.
Kelly’s previous film succeeded partially because an audience was able to relate and care about the central characters, which is not the case with the comically broad Southland Tales. Kelly seems to work best when he has some restraint, be it financially or artistically; the director’s cut of Donnie Darko explained far too much and took some of the magic out of interpreting the movie on your own terms. Southland Tales runs wildly in the opposite direction and is a giant mess unseen in Hollywood for some time, though for the doomsayers comparing Southland Tales to studio-killing, self-indulgent, era-defining Heaven’s Gate, may I argue that Oliver Stone’s Alexander was far more self-indulgent, longer, wackier, and duller. Due to its unpredictable nature, you can never say Southland Tales is boring.
Southland Tales the movie begins as Chapter Four of Kelly’s saga, the first three chapters being made into comic books, and really, when I think about it, a comic book is the right medium for this material. The confines of narrative film are too daunting for Kelly’s overloaded imagination. Southland Tales is oblique, incoherent, strange, and unfocused but not without merit. I doubt Kelly will ever be given the same artistic legroom to create another picture like this, so perhaps Southland Tales has helped to reign in Kelly’s filmmaking. A reigned-in Kelly is where he does his best work, and I look forward to Kelly’s remake of Richard Matheson’s story, “The Box,” presumably with no dance numbers and sexually active motor vehicles.
Nate’s Grade: C