I recently read that after much hand-wringing, Merriam-Webster's decided in 2006 to officially add "Slacker" to the English-Oxford dictionary. Apparently, the subdwellers of a generation that spent the lat decade gleefully wasting away in no-wage McJobs, wearing flannel, dissing Jar Jar Binks and clutching their Nirvana records were too much for even a prestigious society of dictionary snobs to ignore. Not a fad, nor mere fashion, the slacker has transcended the dustbin of pop culture euphemism to emerge as a way of life -- a genuine philosophy. So it's somewhat ironic that in the same year that "slacker" finally went legit, filmmaker Kevin Smith felt it was time to say good-bye to all the word represents with a sequel to 'Clerks,' a film which a decade ago virtually defined the term.
If nothing else, for Smith to revisit 'Clerks' ten years on is a ballsy move. Some considered it inspired, while others called it a sell-out, but no matter which side of the fence you sat on, it was hard not to be curious. Which is a testament to both the original film as well as to Smith, still the only indie success story of the '90s to remain both a critical darling and a commercial underdog. Back in 1996, 'Clerks,' shot on a five-figure shoestring, with no-name actors and entirely in black & white, turned the indie world upside down, earning a hefty profit (though by no means blockbuster dollars) and scoring Smith a level of street cred rivaled only by Quentin Tarantino. That Smith never quite ascended into the big leagues with subsequent efforts like 'Mallrats,' 'Dogma' and the indie classic 'Chasing Amy,' only endeared him more to his fervent legion of admirers, whose passionate attachment to the filmmaker at times bordered on the cult-like. But more importantly, 'Clerks' was that rare indie sensation to have resonance, and it remains a potent snapshot of the zeitgeist, however raw and filthy. In the same way 'The Graduate' defined the '60s, 'Dazed and Confused' defined the '70s (albeit after the fact), and 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' defined the '80s, 'Clerks' gave voice to a whole generation of twentysomething invisibles -- the kind of guys who still live in their parents' basement, andwhose primary contribution to society is an encyclopedic knowledge of 'Lord of the Rings.'
According to M-W, the definition of "Slacker" is, "One who shirks work or responsibility:" Or, in the more poetic words of famed culture commentator Julie Caniglia, "In terms of their outlook on the future, slackers regard tomorrow with a studied cynicism or... don't even conceive of one." As 'Clerks II' begins, that just about sums up the current situation of our heroes Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randall (Brian Anderson). Still working at the Quickie Mart, they haven't aged a day emotionally, despite a few less hairs on the head and wrinkles around the eyes. But after a fire demolishes the only world they've ever known, they take a gig at a local Mooby's fast food joint. And with Dante's clingy fiancee Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach, also the real-life Ms. Kevin Smith) making big plans for a relocation to Florida, as well as Dante's uncontrollable infatuation with his boss Becky (Rosario Dawson), he finally sees an opportunity to break free of his lifelong rut. Of course that doesn't sit too well with Randall, a sort of aborted man-child with virtual Tourette's syndrome, who thwarts Dante's every plan in a subconscious effort to keep his best friend from leaving. Add in Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) as de facto narrators, hilarious cameos by fan faves Jason Lee, Ben Affleck and Wanda Sykes, plus a gleefully naughty musical number that will never play Broadway, and you have another Smith extravaganza, and more than a fitting farewell to the first big stars of the View Askew universe.
'Clerks II' is the exact opposite of what I expected (and no, not just because it is in color). As this HD DVD's robust set of supplements continually remind us, it is the film Smith chose to do after the failure of 'Jersey Girl,' his much-derided, supposed entre into the world of big-budget studio filmmaking. Which makes it tempting to see 'Clerks II' as a knee-jerk, let's-go-back-the-same-well-twice gag reflex of a movie. Instead, it may actually be Smith's most accomplished effort yet -- an observant, intelligent, and surprisingly touching farewell to everything that cemented his indie success. A kiss-off, perhaps, to childish things, but far being mean-spirited, or self-hating, it is gentle and mature. Of course, Smith is just as potty-mouthed as always, and fans of his ribald riffing on all manner of bodily functions and fluids won't be disappointed. There are words spoken and acts depicted in 'Clerks II' that I never thought I'd see in a mainstream film meant to play in respectable theaters, ranging from a hilarious scene about why you should never go "ass to mouth," to a "intraspecies" sex scene involving a donkey that has to be seen to be believed. But throughout it all, Smith retains a heartfelt respect and commitment to his story and characters that, quite frankly, elevates even his most juvenile material far beyond the pop culture mockery and emptiness of a Tarantino.
That 'Clerks II' is somewhat autobiographical is obvious. Smith is Dante (he even goes so far to cast his more shapely wife in the girlfriend role). Perhaps Randall is, too. But where so many indie filmmakers often go wrong -- sticking their heads so far up their own arses that self-analysis becomes inseparable from pretension -- here Smith working out his career neuroses through his most beloved characters pays great dividends. Amid all the gross-out dialogue, endless pop culture monologues and narrative cul-de-sacs, he mines real truths about friendship, relationships and most importantly, staying true to oneself without losing ambition. Heady stuff, but more than any previous Smith film, the balance between the highest and lowest common denominator feels just right. Sure, the acting is often weak (except the luminous Dawson, who lights up every scene she's in, and Trevor Fehrman, whose pained reactions as the put-upon Elias are priceless) and much of the Jay and Silent Bob inside-joke stuff is a bit too provincial to the View Askew universe. But even if you've never seen the original, 'Clerks II' is a true sleeper. Which only makes one wonder where Smith will go from here. But if Dante and Randall's fate at the end of 'Clerks II' is any indication, I think Smith is gonna be just fine.
'Clerks II' gets another 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer courtesy of the Weinstein Co., but it doesn't help the film's low-budget origins all that much. I was a tad bit disappointed with this one -- a quick compare between the HD DVD and the standard-def release didn't reveal much of an upgrade. However, listening to the included audio commentaries on the disc, the transfer apparently looks exactly the way Kevin Smith intended, so I have to temper my disappointment by conceding to the sanctity of the filmmaker's vision.
The biggest drawback is the overblown contrast. 'Clerks II' looks very "hot" -- to the point where whites bloom and edges are so exaggerated that there is an abnormal amount of jagginess. Colors, too, while otherwise attractive (how many movies boast a purple and yellow visual scheme?) are also a bit washed out. At least blacks remain deep and consistent, and the source material is in pristine shape. There is a bit of grain, but noise is actually more prominent, which bumps up the artificiality of the transfer even more. All things considered, detail is just fine, but 'Clerks II' certainly lacks the pop of the best HD DVD titles I've seen, regardless of budget. Again, though, as Smith says on the commentary, 'Clerks II' looks the way he wanted it to, so I can't knock the video rating down too harshly.
Well, here's a surprise. Though it's not mentioned anywhere on the packaging, and the disc defaults to Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1, there is actually a full-blown Dolby TrueHD 5.1 virtually hidden on the disc. Accessible only via the Settings menu, it's a nice bonus, even if 'Clerks II' is hardly the kind of film you associate with cutting-edge, kick-ass surround sound.
Truth be told, as appreciative as I am for the bonus of TrueHD, I couldn't tell any difference between the two tracks. 'Clerks II' is almost all dialogue. Any discrete effects are extremely rare -- the most exciting moment is when Jay throws a cup of coffee, and it splatters nicely in the right surround channel. There are a couple of rock tunes that blare out of all channels on occasion, and the infamous horse scene at least has some liveliness to it. Otherwise, this is just a perfectly fine rendering of a low-budget soundtrack. Dialogue is nice, clean and perfectly balanced in the mix. The track also doesn't suffer from crappy, tinny high-end, which is usually a hallmark of audio on a budget, and low end is decent enough. Just don't boot up the TrueHD track and expect sonic fireworks.
I don't think there's ever been a Kevin Smith DVD that wasn't spilling over with supplemental features, and 'Clerks II' is no exception. Smith and the View Askew crew have stacked the standard-def release with two discs of goodies, and happily all of them have made the jump to HD DVD. And as an added bonus, all of the video material is presented in full 1080p video. Sweet.
Disc one features not one but three audio commentaries. It's a total overload of information. The first is a 'Technical" commentary by Smith, producer Scott Mosier and director of photography David Klein; the second is a "Feature" commentary, again with Smith and Mosier plus actors Jason Mewes, Brian O'Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Trevor Fehrman and Jennifer Schwalbach. The cast gathering is far more fun (only the absence of Rosario Dawson disappoints), despite the fact that with so many participants means little face time for all. Yet Smith is a total pro, after years of doing commentaries and his legendary Q&A's -- he acts as interviewer, probing the cast with questions, so it ends up being a laid back, really charming track. Finally, there is also a third "Podcast" commentary with Smith, Mosier and Anderson that was originally intended to be a downloadable MP3 fans could listen to in theaters on their iPods. Despite a bit of redundancy between all these tracks, the third one might actually be the best, mixing the technical with the on-set anecdotes and other fun reminiscing about the ten years between 'Clerks' and 'Clerks II.'
Also on the first platter are 37 minutes of Deleted Scenes. The assortment is fairly typical, with a few extended or alternate versions of scenes, as well as a couple of gems, including a six-minute improv with guest star Wanda Sykes. Hilarious stuff. Also a hoot is the 8-minute "A Closer Look at Interspecies Erotica" featurette, which, um, goes deeper inside the film's unforgettable "Donkey Dance" scene. This featurette isn't subtitled "Making a Watershed Cinematic Moment" for nothing.
The rest of the extras are all on disc two. The whopper is a 90-minute documentary, "Back to the Well: The Making of 'Clerks II,' which I loved. By far one of the best "video diaries" I've seen in years, the story of the making of the movie is as engaging, if not more so, than the film itself. The production stories are great, from Smith's difficult experience on his pre-'Clerks II' flop 'Jersey Girl,' to what really happened with the aborted 'Green Hornet' project, the difficulty in landing a star for the female lead, and Harvey Weinstein's initial reservations with the script. But Smith also lets the cameras in on his personal life, which allows for some genuinely touching moments, whether it is Smith taking the "avowed agnostic" Mosier to church, or Jason Mewes' surprisingly candid recollections of how his well-publicized heroin addiction influenced the movie. More than the aforementioned commentaries, "Back to the Well" is the heart of the many supplements on the 'Clerks II' HD DVD.
More fun can be found on the Blooper Reel, which runs an incredible 30 minutes on its own. Perhaps this is too much of a good thing, though, as I couldn't make it all the way through without fast forwarding. Dawson chirping "Mooby's!" over and over is a treat, as are the numerous bad line readings by a surprisingly inept Jason Lee, which diehard fans will probably appreciate most. Then there is the VH-1 Movie Special on 'Clerks II.' Running 24 minutes, and the only extra here presented in 4:3 full screen/480p video, it's kind of redundant given the breadth and depth of the rest of the supplements, but far be it for me to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Rounding out this rather impressive collection are ten Online Production Diaries, dubbed "Train Wrecks." Though dozens of these vignettes were posted to the View Askew website throughout the production of 'Clerks II,' Smith and Mosier selected the ten best for inclusion on the HD DVD. Unfortunately, the picks are something of a mixed bag. About half are interesting production quickies, including a look at the film's big "special effect" of the burning of the Quickie Mart, though I personally could have lived without the discussion between Smith and Schwalbach about underwear. And watch for appearances by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriquez, who offer advice to Smith after a first-cut screening of 'Clerks II.'
Despite its filthy mouth and complete lack of embarrassment when it comes to discussing bodily fluids, 'Clerks II' is actually a sweet, sincere good-bye to '90s slackerdom. It also may be Kevin Smith's most humane, genuinely emotional film. This HD DVD release generally delivers the goods -- the transfer was not as grand as I hoped, but we get a surprise Dolby TrueHD soundtrack and tons of extras. Despite my reservations about the transfer, this disc is a no-brainer for fans.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.