Director: Kevin Smith Screenwriter: Kevin Smith Cast: Brian O'Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Trevor Fehrman, Austin Zajur, Jason Mewes, Rosario Dawson, Kevin Smith Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 100 min. MPAA: R

28 years ago, Kevin Smith directed Clerks, a low-budget marvel of Gen-Xers working dead-end jobs, poking fun at pop culture and letting the crude dialogue flow like wine. 28 years later, we have Clerks III, a sequel where the very premise is about recapturing that magic. It’s a meta sequel meant to bring things full circle by having the characters literally recreate the first movie. While there’s certainly an enduring spirit, it’s one that’s hard to appreciate without the thickest of rose-colored glasses.

There’s an extra layer of meta to this picture that makes it a bit of a hard pill to swallow for once again delving into the world of Clerks. Now that they’re middle-aged, the Quick Stop employees of Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) have a much different outlook on life. Having come to realize their own mortality, they set about to make a new movie. Rather than favor the pop culture they consume and rant about in great detail, they decide to write and direct what they know; life at the Quick Stop. Specifically, life 28 years ago at the Quick Stop. Oh, and they’ll be playing themselves in this movie.

So what we get with this sequel is a staging of creating the first movie but less about the plucky nature of reflecting on youthful despair and more based on a midlife crisis of trying to recapture youth. In some ways, this kinda works. It helps that there’s an emotional drive to Randal’s existential crisis and Dante’s trauma. Their movie has some heart behind it, even if it spends way too much time just playing the greatest hits with a winking nod. We get an overacting Jay (Jason Mewes) who can’t remember his lines and a much quiet Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) who speaks quite openly as the film’s cinematographer. There are some recreations of the second movie, present with the quirky Elias (Trevor Fehrman) who has gone from a dorky Christ-lover to a cosplaying Satanist, providing a refreshing change in makeup and costume with each scene.

I can’t help but feel there’s a huge chunk of this picture left on the cutting room floor. Perhaps that’s because the third act doesn’t feel like it has built up to its powerful monologue and conclusion. I’ll admit there was a bit of a gut punch for how Smith pumps his picture with a tearful touch of nostalgia and moves forward amid a tragic event. After the wilder nature of Clerks II, this third entry feels like the most mature in what it wants to explore and bring an end to the stories of convenience store clerks.

There’s definitely a softer edge to this material, where characters who once spoke with such vigor and absurdity of pop culture reduce their banter to passing references. Elias will at one point try out the look of Priss from Blade Runner. Randal remarks that he digs the Blade Runner look while Elias will ask what is Blade Runner, not having seen that film. Doesn’t it feel like there’s wasted potential here? Wouldn’t Randal find a perfect quote to deliver or school Elias on the 1982 cyberpunk classic?

Sure, we’re seeing a different Randal, but the geek in him has grown as weak as his heart. Yet he still shows great reverence for citing plotlines from The Mandalorian and talking about Martin Scorsese films at a funeral. The film still wants to lavish in geeky trivia and references that it’s honestly kinda surprising that there’s a whole scene where Randal talks to his surgeon played by Amy Sedaris about The Mandalorian, a show she plays a recurring character, without a single wink.

And make no mistake, there’s a whole lot of winking going on here. Every aspect of Smith’s original film and franchising is given a garish coat of roasting, from the controversial choice to kill off Dante that was scrapped to the aged script which receives mild scrutiny. Jay and Silent Bob are addressed as being the C3PO and R2-D2 of Smith’s films, Randal comments on how it would be hacky to make a sequel, and Dante argues about what really went down at the funeral in the first film, a reference to a scripted scene that was never filmed. Suffice to say, only the geekiest of Kevin Smith fanboys are going to get the most out of this film.

The saving grace of this film is Brian O’Halloran’s emotional performance as Dante, delving into some truly sad and dramatic territory here. His trauma is explored in a manner that goes deeper than his usual aggravation and his bitterness about Randal’s perceptions of him bubbles up in the perfect rant about their heated friendship. It’s a side I didn’t expect out of this film and, despite how off it feels around scenes of surprise cameos and Jay smoking an absurdly large blunt, it’s certainly appreciated in a film that never quite delivers a memorable laugh.

Clerks III has a solid premise with great ideas but rarely do they ever take off in this sentimental entry of the trilogy. I never quite had an enduring love for the characters but, then again, I’m not Kevin Smith. He clearly has a fondness for these characters considering he’s the one who wants to return to them most and give them a solid send-off. Bringing these quirky characters into a more dramatic light, it’s a refreshing change of pace, if only because pop culture and low-brow humor have lost their edge. The problem isn’t that Clerks has gone soft so much as it hasn’t gone soft enough to make its tearful goodbye punch our guts, especially when the franchise’s punchline is intended as a somber farewell. The final result is a touching yet tepid conclusion for the two dudes who once argued about how the Death Star hired independent contractors.

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