Can I still take your order?

Dante and Randall return to show there’s no such thing as aging gracefully in “Clerks 2”

by Matt Graham

In 1994 convenience store clerk Kevin Smith used his workplace as the location for a movie he filmed on a shoestring budget. The aptly titled “Clerks” followed a day in the work life of two smartass slackers. The semi-autobiographical film’s astute pop culture references and grainy black-and-white look assured Smith a spot as the cult cinematic hero of the 1990s.

As rich and famous as “Clerks” and its various spin-offs have made Smith, though, “Clerks 2” finds his original protagonists, Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and Randall Graves, (Jeff Anderson) still stuck behind the counter more than a decade later. Now the pair works at the fast food restaurant Mooby’s after Randall burned down the Quick Stop by leaving a coffee pot on all night.

But a change is coming. The film begins with the premise that it is Dante’s last day on the job. At 32 years old, he finally is getting his life on track; he’s engaged to be married to the hot girl from high school (Jennifer Schwalbach Smith – Smith’s wife) whose rich parents will provide him with a home and a job in Florida.

Just one complication. A few weeks back, Dante got involved with his boss, Becky (Rosario Dawson), and is now having second thoughts about leaving for Florida with his overbearing fiancée. The situation gets more complicated when he finds out Becky’s pregnant with his child.

While Dante resumes his role from the first film as the perpetual worrier, Randall keeps up his usual barrage of sarcastic witticisms. Randall has a new favorite target, Elias (Trevor Fehrman), a 19-year-old Mooby’s employee – a Christian and an übernerd who loves the “Transformers” and “Lord of the Rings” almost as much as Jesus.

Of course, like all films in Smith’s “View Askew” universe, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) show up to provide the kind of comic relief that can be provided only by loveably eccentric drug dealers.

Although the plot’s primary focus is on Dante’s indecisive love life, the real heart of the story is his friendship with Randall. When the two heroes find themselves in prison after Randall’s going away present for Dante – an “interspecies erotica” show – goes awry, Randall reveals how broken up he is over his only friend leaving town to pursue the kind of middle-class life society tells him he should.

Smith’s strengths and weaknesses as a director are clear by now. His dialogue is unfailingly witty and insightful, but it always comes off sounding more like monologues. And while Smith shows more visual creativity here than in any of his previous films, nobody will be mistaking him for Wes Anderson anytime soon.

Smith’s prose sounds especially wooden when Dante is speaking. Other actors in the film can make Smith’s lines sound almost natural, but O’Halloran always seems to be reading from the script.

Smith redeems himself with his human touch. It would’ve been easy to make the jilted fiancée into a horrid witch. Instead, Smith keeps her sympathetic while showing us enough to know that no marriage between her and Dante could work out. And Randall, despite his bravado, seems to be hiding a real sensitivity behind his mask.

It’s Randall who carries the film, along with Elias, who emerges as the film’s scene stealer. Their debate over the merits of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is one of the funniest scenes in the movie, as are Elias’ naïve conversations on sex with porn-savvy Randall.

“Clerks 2” is a funny movie, as Smith’s films typically are. But like every movie he’s made since the original “Clerks,” it fails to capture the charm of his breakout hit while simultaneously failing to grow into something more. Like his two heroes, he seems content to do a variation on the same thing, over and over again.

Of course, as Dante and Randall come to find at the end of the film (and as Smith probably realized after the disastrous departure from the “View Askew” crew, “Jersey Girl”), sticking with what you know isn’t all bad.