Kevin Smith's breakthrough 1994 comedy Clerks catapulted low-budget black-and-white minimalist filmmaking from the arthouse to the frathouse. More than any other American filmmaker, Smith embodies film's democratic potential: Fans see him as one of their own, an unassuming Jersey guy who became a blue-collar icon through hard work, determination, and a genius for combining sentiment with dick jokes. Since Clerks, Smith has alternated between well-intended, stumbling stabs at maturity, growth, and social relevance, and raunchy sex comedies that pander unashamedly to his almost pathologically devoted fan base. Following Jersey Girl's failure, Smith has returned to familiar terrain with Clerks II. First, the good news: Clerks II is everything Smith's fans could hope it would be. Now the bad news: Clerks II is everything Smith's fans could hope it would be.
Trading grungy black-and-white for color, Clerks II revisits Clerks' archetypal slackers Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson, now stumbling toward middle age. In a plot development even Smith concedes is wildly implausible, dumpy loser O'Halloran is torn between two beautiful women: his domineering fiancée (played by Smith's real-life wife, Jennifer Schwalbach Smith) and his commitment-phobic boss, Rosario Dawson.
By this point, the rhythms of Smith's dialogue are as predictable and mannered as haikus, and like sitcoms, Clerks II is mostly appealing in its familiarity, from the rat-a-tat cussing to the cameos from Smith's repertory company to the extended riffing on Star Wars and geek culture. Clerks II often feels like a pilot from an alternate universe where Standards & Practices encourages marathon bursts of profanity and sexual deviancy involving donkeys. In true Smith fashion, Clerks II alternates between foul-mouthed sitcom-meets-vaudeville banter and naked sentimentality; its most affecting moments come straight from Smith's MTV soul, like a rooftop dance sequence, set to The Jackson 5's "ABC," that dares the audience not to fall as helplessly in love with Dawson as O'Halloran has. As befits someone who grew up on videos and John Hughes movies, Smith understands that a montage set to the perfect pop song conveys emotion far more eloquently than even the savviest screenwriter. Smith's raunchy riffing long ago lost its novelty and punch, but his noble stabs at maturity remain strangely affecting—not in spite of their clumsiness, but rather because of it.