Kevin Smith is still hanging at the Quick Stop, trying to grow up.

Go-Nowhere Men 

Kevin Smith is still hanging at the Quick Stop, trying to grow up.

Two weeks ago, a colleague insisted that Superman Returns isn't a remake of the 1978 original, as I wrote, but a reinterpretation — its melancholy flip side. The Christopher Reeve model is pop art; the Brandon Routh version is heavy and solemn.

Maybe that's how one should approach Kevin Smith's Clerks II — not because Smith wrote a script for an aborted Superman sequel but because his new movie is a note-for-note cover of its predecessor, 1994's Clerks, the charmingly crude black-and-white heap upon which Smith built his frustratingly uneven career as a maker of cult favorites about average people leading below-average lives. At times, Clerks II qualifies less as remake than recycling effort. If the footage weren't in color this time and if the actors reprising their roles were a little thinner, you'd swear this outing had been cobbled together from outtakes.

But Smith acolytes would insist that this is the point: Here we are, a decade later, and nothing has changed for Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson). Dante still works at the Quick Stop in New Freakin' Jersey. Randal still works at the video store next door.

And there they stay, doing the same shit they did in the first movie. Dante is once again torn between two women: his fiancée, Emma (played by Smith's wife, Jennifer Schwalbach, who should never try to act again), and his boss, Becky (Rosario Dawson, who actually earns the paycheck and deserves a bonus). The former promises him an escape from New Jersey: She is ready to drive him down to Florida, where her family awaits with a new job, a new house and a new life that will likely involve fewer discussions about the etiquette of going ass-to-mouth and fewer debates about whether the Star Wars movies are better than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Becky, whose toenails Dante paints while Randal teases virgin doofus Elias (Trevor Fehrman) and offends customers with offhand talk of porn and "porch monkeys," offers only true love and Jersey. Well, that and she can deliver dialogue without sounding like she's reading cue cards being held up miles away.

Hanging over the proceedings are the melancholy musings of a filmmaker revisiting old haunts while trying to leave them behind. In the depressing middlebrow sitcom that was Jersey Girl, Smith tried to move up and found himself smacked down by fans who wanted nothing to do with weepy, sentimental domestication. Besides, he's too erratic a writer and too flaccid a director to balance smirky-dirty humor with schmaltz. He had little choice but to ride shotgun with Dante and Randal again.

Smith's heart is in it, but it's sort of a broken heart now. Clerks II is as clumsy and junky as the first movie, and there's no excuse for it at this late date. Smith has made too many movies that cost too much money to keep hoping that the camera is in the right place or that the scene of the dude fucking the donkey will work when jammed next to the prolonged exchange between Randal and Dante in which they reveal how they really feel about each other. Clerks II can't bear the strain of its amateur-hour theatrics, no matter how big its heart. The dramatic moments become melodramatic; the bawdy moments turn icky. Fans will eat it up.

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