My Favourite Films #37: Clerks

This is one of those movies that has appealed to me in lots of different ways over the years, but which I’ve always loved. I first saw it in my late teens as I’d already enjoyed two other Kevin Smith movies, Mallrats and Chasing Amy, and had tracked it down on VHS (dating myself there).


Initially I liked the movie because it was filled with hilarious, filthy dialogue and geeky references, and I also loved the story behind it, how Smith had racked up masses of credit card debts to get it made and that they’d shot at night at the store where he actually worked (this being the reason behind the plot point of the shutters being stuck down).

clerks quick stop

As a teen I’d made a couple of goofy short films with some mates (unfortunately the masterpieces Death of Action Man and The Skewenian Witch Project have been lost) and harboured dreams of becoming a movie and starting off with a low budget debut. Unfortunately this never got off the ground aside from a few shorts I made at uni, which have also been lost, although somewhere at my Mum’s house are probably notebooks with the beginnings of scripts in.

Smith was a hero of mine, it helped that he seemed funny and cool, and that his geeky style worked for me, but the fact that this dude could make a movie and then become a pro director was inspiring. Smith is a bit of an inspirational figure and even wrote a book where he dishes out some wonderfully positive advice and support for people trying to do stuff.

The third level of enjoyment for me, beyond it just being a funny flick and something I’d like to do, was that as recent graduate who worked behind a counter for a time it really spoke to me. While everybody wishes they could be as open and confident as the best friend Randal (Jeff Anderson), I think most of us at some time feel like Dante (Brian O’Halloran) uncertain of his future and feeling trapped in a rut.

Dante and Randal
Dante and Randal

When I was 23, around the age Dante is, I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life, or rather I did, but I was confused and afraid of how to get to them. I’m pushing 30 now and I still feel like that a lot of the time, but at 23 it spoke to me, I was young and aimless. Uni was over, and it hadn’t flowed into a career as easily as I’d hoped. I’d stalled, and I hated it. Worse, I didn’t do enough to get out of it and just whined about my lot in life, just like Dante.

Maybe I’m being too hard on the protagonist, but in a way it’s part of what I like about Smith’s movie, that front and centre he puts a character who is at times annoying. This is a dude who constantly whines, who hates where he is but is afraid to try and get out of it, and who blames others for his poor decisions. In short, Smith has crafted a realistic portrait of an early 20s slacker who thinks he’s better than many around him.

Dante isn’t all bad, he is quite funny in places and his fears and failing are believable and well done, and over the course of the film you do warm up to him, thanks in part to O’Halloran’s performance, which manages to stay just the right side of whiny for most of the movie. It’s also good as it speaks to a certain kind of person, who’s starting to fear that they’re stuck where they are, and that’s where I think a lot of us find ourselves at some point. Smith’s love triangle for Dante is infuriating, as the audience clearly knows who’s the right girl, but it’s realistic of how an ex, even a terrible one, can still hold sway over a person’s feelings.

The problem is also that Dante’s friend, Randal steals the whole show. Played with sarky verve by Jeff Anderson, Randal gets all the best lines (understandably as Smith had originally written the role for himself), constantly annoyed with customers and spouting profanity strewn rants, Randal is a comic masterpiece, firing out filthy gags, angry retorts and generally leading Dante astray.

While Anderson does a great job, the real plaudits have to be reserved for Kevin Smith himself, because his script is the film’s best asset. The acting is stilted in places and shot on cheap black-and-white stock, the movie looks awfully cheap, but the dialogue sparkles throughout. It helps that for a lot of the movie it has a realistic feel to, capturing the trivial debates and arguments you get in with your friends. The foul-mouthed dissection of pop culture are pretty on the nose, and Smith captures geek culture before it flourished online.

The plot is a bit messy, based around a single day it sees wild tangents that include hockey games on the roof, a disastrous funeral, a parade of idiotic customers and even accidental necrophilia. It’s also filled with a plethora of bizarre characters and is the introduction of Smith’s on screen alter ego Silent Bob, who along with hetero-life mate Jay (Jason Mewes) would become a recurring feature in Smith’s movies.

Jay and Silent Bob
Jay and Silent Bob

It’s a crazy movie, but it fizzes with energy and the low budget style works in it’s favour, especially as the grainy black and white actually looks like security tape in some parts. Smith’s script keeps it going and delivers a string of laughs throughout, and while the language might be a barrier for some, it works for me and you could argue that Smith’s sweary geek comedy is still evident in the work of Judd Apatow and co.

It’s a marvelous little movie, full of charm and wit, and proved a great calling card for Smith, which is a good thing as without this succeeding we wouldn’t have gotten his subsequent movies or his magnificent podcasts. Smith deserves his success, not just because he made a movie so cheaply, independently and bravely, but that he made a great movie under those circumstances, and one that still makes me laugh all these years later.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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