Review: Clerks (1994)

Most of us have had the experience of working retail. And most of us have had similar impressions of the experience: yech! Most of us disliked retail so much that one retail job during a lifetime was plenty. Working in the land of cubicles like Dilbert is a real step up from ringing up retail merchandise all day or stocking shelves all night. When you work retail, your work is typically grinding, boring and endlessly repetitious. The customers are vacillating and annoying idiots that like to vent their frustrations on grossly underpaid retail workers. After work, you’d celebrate Miller Time except you are paid so little you probably cannot even afford to. When you work retail, you are probably still living at home or are sharing a room in a group home somewhere. Basically, you are living in poverty, just not drawing from the welfare state.

Kevin Smith’s 1994 movie Clerks though manages to make the ubiquitous retail job seem if not quite fun then at least bearable, given it’s weird cast of characters. Clerks was Kevin Smith’s first real film of note. It was scorned by many “serious” movie reviewers but apparently is something of a cult classic for those lucky enough to have seen it. Like all of Smith’s movies, it is crass, and chalk full of expletives and sexually explicit innuendos. Yet, to those of us who did retail and spent time rubbing shoulders with the bottom twenty percent of humanity it feels authentic. I know I sure related to Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran), one of the ubiquitous retail droids behind the counters of the 7 Elevens of the world, although in his case it is a Quick Stop in Leonardo, New Jersey. His job is shitty but surprisingly he cares a bit about it, even when he is unexpectedly working sixteen-hour days because his boss goes on an impromptu vacation. He feels some responsibility even when being treated so shabbily.

Dante is basically a nice early twenties something white guy who earns a very modest wage as the assistant manager of the Quick Stop. Next door is a video rental store with a spaced out dude named Randall behind its counter. Randall must not have much to do because he spends most of his time hanging out with Dante over at his store while various customers, most of the eccentric and loser variety, cycle in and out. Sometimes the place bustles but it is often empty. That’s when a young man’s fancy turns toward his girlfriend Veronica who seems suitably devoted to him but, we quickly learn, has had three dozen lovers. Most of these she says don’t count because (sort of like Bill Clinton) fellatio is not real sex. Veronica puts out for Dante. Meanwhile, Dante learns that his ex girlfriend Caitlin is engaged. This bums Dante out, who had real feelings for Caitlin and sees Veronica as something like a second-class girlfriend. Yet, surprise! Caitlin comes by to tell him that she is not as engaged as the story makes out, and she still loves him. They arrange to go on a date later to see if sparks still fly while Dante cannot summon the nerve to tell Veronica.

All sorts of strange things happen in this store. When business gets slow, Dante and Randall go to a funeral home to pay respects to the family of a girl they knew in high school. The trip ends disastrously and hysterically. Back at the store, Dante and Randall get very creative with finding ways to have fun on the job, particularly since no one is looking. They and some friends manage to have a soccer game on the roof of their building. And what happened to that guy who needed to use the bathroom and asks for a skin magazine and fresh rolls of toilet paper? Stay tuned.

Clerks was clearly made on a shoestring by (then) no name actors. Smith was also getting his directorial moorings with this film, because it suffers from a number of minor problems, including dialog that is often spoken so quickly that it is hard to process. Smith’s handprints are all over this movie that he wrote, produced, directed and even acts in (in the role of Silent Bob, a low level doper). Surprisingly, his approach works really well. You will remember Clerks because once you see it, it is absolutely unforgettable. Much like the movie Airplane!, you may find yourself quoting dialog from it weeks later. If you are like me, you will be laughing hysterically through much of the movie. In fact, it inhabits a spot among the top dozen funniest movies I have ever seen.

Smith has done a number of other movies that are similar in style, two of which are notable and I have seen. These include Dogma and Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Having seen Clerks, I must now rent Clerks II made ten years later and hope it is as good. I may need to get my own DVD of the movie for my collection as well as see everything Kevin Smith wrote or directed, because his sense of humor is scarily similar to mine.

Clerks is as good as a low budget cheap humor movie can get. Rent it. 3.4 on my four-point scale.

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