The 90's were a strange and unique time in American popular-culture. While mainstream, Hollywood-backed films seemed to become increasingly bogged down with trite stories and loud special effects, the world of indie-cinema was at its peak, and delivered a plethora of incredible works from incredible storytellers. It was the decade that gave us wild and imaginative minds like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, after all. And among the quality independent filmmakers to emerge from this ten year period was Kevin Smith, with his breakout hit "Clerks."
It's almost pointless to delve into Smith's story or the film's production, because it's a tale that has become almost legendary. But in essence, it is the tale of a typical Jersey slacker who enjoyed reading comic-books and writing comedy skits, and was eventually inspired to make a movie about the things he knew in life. That film became "Clerks", an award winning indie-darling that struck a chord for audiences the world over with its frank and open analysis of the life of a typical, aimless 20- something working a dead-end job while spending his time discussing life, love and pop-culture. It was one of those rare films that seemed to capture a painfully realistic slice of true life while also managing to entertain and enthrall with sharp humor and clever dialog. And it paved the way for bigger, better things for almost all involved.
Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran), a retail clerk at a New Jersey convenience store, is called into work on his day off. Condemned to spend the day behind the counter serving the clueless public despite his repeated cry of "I'm not even supposed to be here today!", Dante tries to make the best of it by shooting the breeze with his carefree best friend Randal (Jeff Anderson) and wasting time discussing movies. However, a series of events throughout the day threaten to shake Dante's world, including an argument regarding his girlfriend Veronica's (Marilyn Ghigliotti) sexual past, the re- emergence of an old High School flame (the late Lisa Spoonauer), and a peculiar old man who asks to use the store's bathroom. All the while, a pair of trouble-making stoners known as "Jay and Silent Bob" (Jason Mewes, director Smith) cause a ruckus outside...
What made "Clerks" work so well back in the day and what makes it continue to work more than twenty years later is the razor-sharp and wickedly clever writing on the part of Smith, in addition to stellar performances from all of our leads. Produced on a micro-budget and filmed during the night using rented equipment on 16mm black-and- white film, "Clerks" is most certainly not particularly pretty to look at. It's dark, gritty and dirty. But that really doesn't matter because the characters are allowed to take center-stage and shine while delivering some of the most deliciously funny and surprisingly insightful dialog imaginable. It's a movie almost exclusively about what makes the characters tick, and their interpersonal relationships, while being punctuated by laugh-out-loud gags and strong observational humor. And anyone whose worked a job where they had to serve the public will tell you... this feels just like real-life. It's absolutely sublime in how it is structured and paced, and you could swear they just filmed real people on a real work day, save for the few crazier moments peppered in to progress the plot.
The cast is electrifying, giving performances that feel grounded and true. O'Halloran is endlessly engaging as our sort-of "hero" Dante, although the film does cleverly make him something of a troubled figure, giving him added depth. He doesn't always do good things, but we can empathize with him and recognize his struggles. Anderson frequently steals the show as the clever but often infuriating Randall Graves. Randall is that guy we all know- nothing bothers him and his attitude is strictly "I don't give a crap." And yet, despite his callousness, there's still a human being underneath. Ghigliotti is charming and highly sympathetic as Dante's long- suffering but supportive girlfriend, and though her screen time is limited, she's always a welcome addition. Spoonauer's role is fascinating and unique, as she represents a sort-of idealized view of the past and future, and she does the role justice. And of course, Mewes and Smith, along with other minor characters played by friends and acquaintances of Smith, add a lot of cheeky fun. Though Jay and Silent Bob haven't been quite defined yet as characters.
Unfortunately, the film is not without its fair share of issues. Much of the film feels dated in a way that does occasionally distract, especially when revisiting it after some time. It's hard to hear some of the references or see some of the settings without feeling a certain aesthetic distance. I also found that the low budget and rough-around-the-edges production is more noticeable with time, and can get in the way of some key scenes. Perhaps it's unfair, but living in a time where a $500 DSLR and a decent knowledge of lighting can produce high quality imagery that would fit right in on television... it's sometimes hard to watch older films that were so crippled by low budgets. Finally, despite Smith's keen ear for dialog... you can tell the film was written by a 20-something whose trying a bit too hard. Some of the exchanges come across as pretentious, and the inclusion of verbose, 5-dollar-words as "chapter titles" feels contrived.
Still, that cannot diminish the fact that "Clerks" is an indisputable classic of its time that for the most part still rings true even to this day. The low-budget production values and occasional poor judgments in the writing can be a bit tedious, but the phenomenal performances, good humor and sharp dialog more than make up for these minor flaws. "Clerks" easily earns a fantastic 9 out of 10, and I still give it a very high recommendation for those who have not yet had a chance to check it out!