Reality Blows: The Best and Worst of Gen-X Flicks (#2)
In my newest post about the movies of Generation-X, I chose to write a little bit about one of the funnies comedies of the 1990s, Clerks.
The movie is kinda brilliant.
One of the problems with many films made about young people in the ‘90s is that screenwriters tried so hard to make their characters hip. Think about Reality Bites, a movie that sank under the weight of forced injection of pop culture references into every scene and the characters’ boring, drawn-out examinations of their lives.
And then consider Clerks, a welcome reaction to phony movies like Reality Bites. With its biting dialogue and true-to-life feel, you might actually want to spend a few hours discussing girls and Star Wars trivia with Clerks’ characters.
Kevin Smith’s first picture, shot in black-and-white on a $28,000 budget, looks at Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson), two slackers who work in adjoining retail stores in Jersey. Dante mans the register in a QuikStop market, while Randall runs a failing video store right next door. Stuck in dead-end jobs, the college dropouts spend their days discussing Return of the Jedi, stupid customers and fetish pornography with the same fervor as PhD candidates discussing their research.
Dante’s day begins on a low note when he’s called in on his day off. His arrival is met with nothing but trouble. There’s gum jammed in the store‘s locks. A man with a cancerous lung stashed in his briefcase enters the store and instigates a riot among smokers who frequent the QuikStop. Two stoners, Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith) stand outside the store dealing pot and chasing away customers.
And throughout the day, Randal nags Dante endlessly and regales patrons with tales of ever-increasing crudeness.
To top things off, Dante is having a romantic crisis, trying to choose between his wonderfully accommodating girlfriend Veronica and his ex-flame, Caitlin, who’s just arrived back in town. The worst thing, Dante complains: “I’m not even supposed to be here today!”
It might sound like a clusterfuck on paper. But I assure you the film is anything but–I can only remember maybe five or six movies I’ve ever seen where I laughed as hard as I did during my first (and second, and third…) viewing of Clerks.
Perhaps I liked the movie so much because of Randal, one of the most original characters to hit the screen in the 1990s. If Dante plays the straight-man who tries to care about his job, Randal relishes the opportunity to fail.
It’s hard to tell if he intentionally wants to irritate his clients or if he’s totally oblivious to the fact that, in a retail job, he must at least try to maintain a veneer of professionalism. In the movie’s most hilarious sequence, Randal orders “adult” tapes (e.g. “Cum On Eileen”) by telephone right in front of a woman and her pre-school aged daughter so casually, he seems not to understand his actions are in poor taste.
We don‘t blame Randal, though. His video store is so pathetic that, when he wants to rent a good movie (a chicks-with-dicks porno, in this case), he has to drive three towns over to find it. And both he and Dante are so underpaid, it’s a wonder they even bother getting up in the morning. The only explanation I can drum up is that Randal and Dante, with all their angst, grudgingly enjoy their lives and the time they spend together.
And maybe that’s what’s so wonderful about Clerks: the bizarre friendship the guys share. Unlike Reality Bites’ characters, Randal and Dante don’t seem to have given the slightest thought to what generation they’re part of or how they should “act” to show disaffection. They just exist, discussing minutia 23-year old dudes typically discuss.
The movie also works because Randal and Dante have a surprisingly astute understanding of human behavior from watching it day-to-day behind the registers of their respective stores. For example, when Dante and his lady-friend Veronica sit on the floor behind the counter chatting, he leaves some change on the counter accompanied by a sign that reads: “Take correct change. Be honest.” His supposition: “Theoretically, people see money on the counter, and no one around, they think they’re being watched.” So true.
Yet, most of their time is monopolized by conversing about how much smarter they are than the average customer.
“You’d never believe the barrage of stupid questions I get at the video store,” Randal comments slack-jawed at one point. His proclamation leads into a montage where people make the dimmest possible inquiries about movies, culminating with: “Do you have the one with that guy who was in that movie that was out last year?”
Though Clerks has numerous long stretches of dialogue that occasionally sound overly literate (think “Gilmore Girls” set in a 7-11), a few wonderfully zany gags break up the pic‘s sometime-staginess.
In one of the movie’s funniest scenes, a man shopping in the store performs strange endurance tests on eggs and smashes them on a glass freezer door when they don‘t meet his expectations. I laughed hardest when I realized that Dante and Randal had no intentions of stopping the guy. They simply look on in wonder, curiously discussing what makes the guy tick.
Of course, beneath all of Dante’s criticism of his customers and analyses of guys breaking eggs on freezer doors, he refuses to seriously consider his own shortcomings. He inexplicably pines for his cheating ex Caitlin even though his current girlfriend Veronica brings him lasagna at work to make his day just a bit more manageable.
To Dante, however, everything harkens back to his motto that ‘he’s not even supposed to be’ at work that day. When things go wrong, he always blames it on something supernatural.
When Randal finally calls him on this one major weakness near the end, the situation rapidly escalates into a haphazard destruction of the convenience store‘s candy shelves. It’s just another way Clerks takes a normal quarter-life crisis moment and makes it actually worth watching.
The premise of the movie is so simple that I can’t begin to imagine how hard it was for Smith to put on paper. Besides the extraordinarily colorful dialogue, even minor characters like Jay and Silent Bob are worth our attention. And Veronica, who might be a throwaway girlfriend in a lesser pic, is a serious player and earns our affection in just a few well-scripted scenes.
Smith seems to fully understand that audiences are more interested in hanging out with a slacker who sells coffee and newspapers than most boring movie cops and lawyers. But then again, very few screenwriters have as good an ear as for the way bored-stiff working people talk. That’s why Clerks works and is a masterful, unique picture.