The flames engulfing the Quik Stop send the world into colorful relief. For fans of Kevin Smith's Clerks, the desecration of such hallowed ground will seem unconscionable, an outright attack on a vital American subculture, one that leads Randal (Jeff Anderson) to ask Dante (Brian O'Halloran) if it was a terrorist strike before realizing that he had simply left the coffee maker on overnight.
To those unfamiliar with the 1994 comic take on this pair of convenience store clerks, the terrorist remark will feel like a highly tasteless assault. But rest assured, it is not the only one, not by a long shot. Since making the original, Smith has danced around the boundaries of political correctness, straying across the line in terms of religion (Dogma), sexual identity (Chasing Amy) and Hollywood pop celebrity (Jersey Girl).
But his naughty sensibilities have largely been held in check. His dirty mouthpieces have been Jay and Silent Bob, the dime-bag-selling goofballs who have migrated from the Quik Stop into their own raunchy adventures in La-La Land. That Smith plays the role of Silent Bob, who is rarely as mute as the name implies, is the cue that as a writer/director, he's not above putting an off-color comment or two in his own mouth for the greater good.
And the reason for this visit to his old stomping grounds? Let's say Smith is addressing the anxieties and frustrations of the white males who rarely get to speak their minds freely for fear of being labeled racists, sexists or worse, and the return of Randal and Dante, along with Jay and Silent Bob, offers the old boys representatives unafraid of shooting from below the hip.
The early fire leaves the clerks without employment and the suburban dealers without a spot to peddle their wares, so they make a lateral move over to Mooby's, a fictional burger joint that puts a big bull's-eye on the franchise formula of McDonald's for ridicule and scorn. After a year of pushing fast food, Dante's ready to cash out for the warmth of Florida thanks to his fiancé Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach Smith, the director's wife, who takes one for the team here) and her family's largesse. He will be a made man with a new house and a couple of car washes to oversee.
Clerks II takes the day-in-the-life approach, offering up Dante's last day as an opportunity for everything that could go wrong to do so, which forces him to finally make a real decision about what the hell he wants to do with his life. The first film presented him as a rather weak-kneed type who never accepted responsibility for his own situation. Surprise, nothing's changed 10 years later.
Dante is the white male without a sense of manifest destiny or the balls to snatch someone else's destiny and claim it as his own. He's afraid of offending others, not because he's sensitive to their needs and feelings, but because he has no sense of who he is or what he wants beyond the dreams foisted on him by society or his momentary urges.
One such lapse is his relationship with his Mooby's manager, Becky (Rosario Dawson), a relationship that is obviously more fulfilling than the one he has with Emma. It's a prime example of the racial quandary that confronts him. He must choose between the picture-perfect blonde (and the good, boring life) and the exotic other (who can free him body and soul). The complications here are standard and the choice is clear, but what's an uptight, slacker white guy to do?
The film's answer, and one that is now taking Hollywood by storm, apparently, is to listen to your hetero life-mate who is more in touch with his inner non-white-guy-ness. Randal is the spiritual precursor of Owen Wilson's Dupree without the mystical aura. Randal indulges his fantasies and speaks his mind, and even when he's offering evidence of his own stupidity (such as his confusing Anne Frank and Helen Keller or his disparaging remarks about racial epithets), he is speaking from a place that's pure and purely hilarious. If only everyone -- not just white males -- could just let their freak-flags fly. Grade: A