Sunday, August 30, 2009
I definitely ventured against the critical grain on this one. And Kevin Smith has gone on to a successful, entertainingly iconoclastic career.
$28,000 film just ain’t that funny
By DONALD PORTER
The ultimate expression of prevailing slacker chic, “Clerks” arrives in Utah theaters today, trailing awards -- from Sundance and Cannes -- and critical praise in its wake. But just why it’s been so flattered with tony prizes and positive reviews is a puzzlement.
Yes, “Clerks” is witty. And, to be sure, it’s quite an achievement for a micro-budget of less than $28,000. (For comparison, the average Hollywood studio movie costs upwards of $30 million, excluding prints and advertising.)
But if you strip away the irresistible background story of a pair of resourceful first-time filmmakers who scratched together the funds to make their movie by maxing out credit cards and filming in a convenience store where one of them was employed, you’re left with an ultra-low budget oddity that’s more profane, sexist and vulgar than it is intelligent or entertaining.
“Clerks” is a day in the life of two twentysomething clerks: Dante (Brian O’Halloran) runs the register at a convenience store, while Randal (Jeff Anderson) works behind the counter at an adjoining video shop. Together, Dante and Randal discourse -- relentlessly -- on the shabby state of their respective lives, while minor characters move in and out of the frame as day winds into night.
The point writer-director Kevin Smith seems to be making, in a decidedly comic fashion, is that America holds little promise for its budding generations. Dante and Randal are destined to work dead-end service jobs. Frankly, it’s a concept that's much more reassuring than, say, these two guys piloting passenger aircraft or working as neurosurgeons; at least they’re employed in positions where their idiocy can’t do much harm.
The protagonist-as-slob is nothing new, and has in fact become a bankable premise for low-brow movie comedies. How else do you explain the popularity of “Wayne's World,” “Ace Ventura” and any number of other movies? “Clerks” isn't that dopey, but Dante and Randal aren’t braniacs, either; their shockingly explicit discussions of sex should offend almost everyone -- the movie was originally rated NC-17 for its foul language, but later downgraded to an R on appeal -- and the unenlightened regard for females is pointedly politically incorrect.
This alternately bright, silly, witty and stupid approach is more messy than confident. (For the super-low budget gem, Robert Rodriguez’s robust “El Mariachi” remains the champ.) Even so, Smith's “Clerks” has its moments, including an impromptu roller-skate hockey match on the roof of the store and a discussion of the political subtext of “Return of the Jedi,” both of which will leave viewers howling with laughter.
Such bursts of hilarity are infrequent, though. “Clerks” is a misfire.