Clerks follows the lives of two men going about their daily business working menial jobs. That’s rarely shown in movies, but I think that’s for a good reason: Many people watch movies to escape from reality, not to re-live it. This one takes place in a convenience store and takes us from 6:00AM until closing time. Well, not quite, but that’s essentially what we’re promised.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran), though. He wasn’t even supposed to work today. He gets a wake-up call from his boss, telling him that there has been an illness, and that he has to work. His boss will be there at noon to take over so that Dante can still get to his hockey game at 2:00. Off to the convenience store we go, and it’s where we’ll spend the majority of the rest of the film, with small interludes taking us outside (yes, there is still going to be a hockey game, which made me, a Canadian, happy).
Dante is frequently joined by his friend, Randal (Jeff Anderson), who works at the video store right by Dante’s choice of employment. Randal hardly works, though, as he frequently closes the store to hang out with his best buddy. Not really much of a problem, as the video store is so terrible that Randal goes to another video store to rent movies. He also cusses out at the customers, doesn’t help them make choices, and is a terrible employee. It’s a wonder he doesn’t get fired. Dante, on the other hand, does at least try to do a good job, even if he’s not the brightest bulb in the batch.
I’m not sure if I can say that Clerks has a plot. It has a bunch of subplots, but nothing that really drives anyone for a long period of time. Dante has a girlfriend, Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti), who appears infrequently. He wants to be back with his ex-girlfriend, Caitlin (Lisa Spoonhaure), whom he has recently learned is engaged; he found out by reading it in the newspaper. But that’s really the only constant, with most of the rest of the film just trying to live in the moment, never becoming too fixated on one detail.
There are more moments in the film that seem to serve just to make you laugh for a few seconds, and then moving on and never referencing them again. That works for this kind of film, as it means that we’re never bored — new stimuli is always being introduced — but if you want a coherent film, you’ll want to look elsewhere. Director/writer Kevin Smith doesn’t want that kind of thing in his film; he’s more concerned with making you constantly laugh.
As for the comedy, there are many humorous points in the film. This is good, because if a lot of the jokes fell flat, Clerks would get boring quickly. The types of jokes in the film typically fall into one of two categories: Offensive or trying-too-hard-to-be-offensive-but-still-funny-because-of-the-effort. This isn’t your highbrow type of comedy — it will push any and all boundaries as far as you can get away with. In fact, because of language only, it almost got the dreaded NC-17 rating until an appeal was won.
If you don’t like offensive and vulgar comedy, you’ll hate Clerks. If you do, there’s a good chance this will be a film for you. That is about as simple as this type of film can be broken down. It’s a good example and well-made (relative to the miniscule budget, that is) film that you could throw up there with any of these types of films. It’s nothing particularly special, but if it makes you laugh for 90 minutes, it’s a success, right?
I think what makes the film work better than the jokes themselves are the ways that all of the dialogue is delivered. Apart from a couple of awkward deliveries, and a couple of errors that I assume were left in to keep the budget in-check, everything felt natural — like we weren’t watching a film. This helps make the film feel grounded in reality, and helps us laugh at some of the gags just because of how funny that would be in real life instead of in a movie. The actors don’t feel like actors, most of the time.
Speaking of that budget, Clerks was filmed on only around $27,000 and was shot in black and white. That it got made at all, and was any good, is definitely something to be congratulated. It also contained a lot of long takes, and the actors managing to keep a straight face while spouting some of the ridiculous lines they have been given should be celebrated. It feels low-budget, but it’s funny enough, for the most part, that this only helps add to its look and doesn’t become a deterrent.
I was about to close when I realized I hadn’t mentioned two other characters in the film. The now-infamous Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith, respectively) made their first appearance here. Why? I can’t honestly tell you, as apart from one dialogue exchange, they serve no purpose except to goof around and make us laugh a couple of times. But I wasn’t a fan of them after this film. They needed more to do, really, but they weren’t given much to work with.
Clerks was funny. Simple as that. I laugh quite frequently while watching it, and that’s really the only mark of a good comedy. Is it offensive and overly vulgar? Yes it is. Does that make it unfunny? No it doesn’t. It lacks coherency and had a few characters that didn’t need to be included, but it felt natural thanks to the actors not feeling like they were acting (most of the time), and ended up being quite funny.