[Screen It]

(2006) (Brian O'Halloran, Jeff Anderson) (R)

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Comedy: As one of them prepares to move away, two thirty-something men try to sort out their friendship and their interaction with their boss while working at a fast food joint.
It's been more than a decade since we last saw clerk Dante Hicks (BRIAN O'HALLORAN) and next door video store worker Randal Graves (JEFF ANDERSON) hanging out at the Quick Stop convenience store, but things have now changed. For starters, the convenience store has closed due to a fire, resulting in them being employed at the fast food joint Mooby's where they work alongside 19-year-old geek Elias (TREVOR FEHRMAN) for the beautiful Becky (ROSARIO DAWSON). She's keeping the place open while her owner uncle battles cancer, and she gets along fabulously with Dante.

However, it's his last day working there, as he's now engaged to the domineering Emma (JENNIFER SCHWALBACH) who's convinced him to move to her parents' Florida home with her. This has resulted in some tension between Dante, who realizes he finally needs to grow up, and Randal who still lives and behaves like an adolescent. With drug dealers Jay (JASON MEWES) and Silent Bob (KEVIN SMITH) having followed the two to the burger joint where the latter continue to peddle their goods outside the building, Dante must resolve his relationships with Randal, Becky and Emma.

OUR TAKE: 4. 5 out of 10
It's almost as if you're back in 1994, when "Clerks" first graced movie screens. Dante (Brian O'Halloran) starts his black-and-white day by pulling up the sliding guard door on the Quick Stop and lo! The place is ablaze and in color. In that instant, you might think that things will change. But you'd be wrong.

In fact, much of "Clerks II" revisits the first movie, not only because Dante and Randal (Jeff Anderson) are still together, but also because now, even as they settle into their 30s, they're still wondering what they're going to do next. They haven't exactly grown up, but Dante, for one, is at least thinking about rethinking his life choices.

Following that opening scene -- which includes fire trucks and noise and a hint of self-awareness on Randal's part ("I left the coffee pot on again, didn't I?") -- this movie, like the first, takes place over one day. Dante and Randal get jobs as fast food counter boys at Mooby's, the "Viewaskew" universe's version of McDonald's.

At the new joint (which still sells Freedom Fries), Randal has a new target, a younger and blatantly virginal employee named Elias (Trevor Fehrman), who clings to his faith in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy the way Randal clings to his in "Star Wars"(Randal points out that the only, and very slow, action in "LOTR" is walking). Otherwise, the incessant topic of conversation is sex in sundry forms, including bestiality.

That comes up in particular because Randal decides to order up a "donkey show" for the occasion of Dante's departure. The following morning, he's leaving New Jersey for Florida, with his eager tongue-kisser of a fiancée, Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach, director Kevin Smith's wife). This impending abandonment has only upped the ante for Randal's melancholy, tipping it into despair.

But of course, he can't say that. He can only argue with Dante and make trouble with the customers (here, Wanda Sykes as a woman who takes umbrage at Randal's campaign to "take back" the term "porch monkey," which his grandmother called him as a child) and gossip about their boss, the beautiful, independent-minded, way-too-smart-for-them Becky (Rosario Dawson).

It's easy to see why Dante's drawn to Becky. She's adorable, lets him paint her toenails, doesn't believe in heart-and-flowers romance, and holds her own in the boys' bawdy conversation. She's so cool that Randal has found a good reason to dislike her: she threatens his one-on-one relationship with Dante. He loves Dante, "in a totally heterosexual way," and resents the attention he pays to Becky almost as much as the fact that he's leaving Jersey to... do what exactly? How lucky for Dante that Emma's dad has a job ready for him, not to mention a house as a wedding gift. "Not only is she pretty," observes Becky of Emma. "She'll make all your decisions for you."

If you've seen "Clerks," you know what comes next. For all the plans and preparations Emma's making, Dante is torn. Unable to commit even though he thinks he really really wants to, he quietly looks on as Emma takes charge (she wants to order wedding invitations before they've settled on a date). As she's set up here to be a problem (and the movie hardly needs to lay on her horribleness so thickly, as Dawson's Becky is so obviously its preference), the kicker is unnecessary: Dante and Becky have indeed done what Randal suspects, that is, they shared one passionate night in Mooby's kitchen.

His decision -- whether to stay with Becky or move with Emma -- forms the movie's sentimental arc, whereby he comes to terms with how he feels about Randal, and oh yes, the girls too. However, the point of "Clerks," either number, is talk -- speedy, competitive, clever banter that recalls, in its profane way, the rhythms of old Ben Hecht comedies like "Nothing Sacred" or "His Girl Friday." As goofy and conventional as these relationships may be (including dope-dealing duo, Jay [Jason Mewes] and Silent Bob [Smith]), they are enlivened by and in language.

This love of language and rhythm is underscored by a charming sequence (yes, "Clerks II" includes a sequence that might be termed "charming"). As Dante ponders his future, he displaces his fear of marriage to Emma onto trepidation over dancing at the wedding, which only allows Becky to play teacher.

She takes him up to Mooby's rooftop, has Jay turn on his boom box that blasts the Jackson Five's "ABC," one of the most enchanting pop songs ever performed. Everyone within earshot is affected, shown by an assortment of head-boppers (including a guy standing at a urinal, so you know the movie hasn't gone soft) and culminating in an awkwardly heartwarming group dance number featuring nuns, cheerleaders, and young not-so-toughs.

But "Clerks II" is still pretending it's not heartwarming and conventional, so it scoots away from this display almost as soon as it occurs. The wind-down scenes -- some more fulminating from Randal, more fretting from Dante, the big climax of the donkey show (which features a guy in leather instead of the expected girl, returning the boys to their favorite topic yet again), and a few hours in jail. When Randal finally admits to Dante that he's been a jerk all day because "I'm looking at a future that sucks because you're not in it anymore," the movie gives up. It is heartwarming after all. The film rates as a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed July 14, 2006 / Posted July 21, 2006

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