- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2006

The fan boys who worship writer-director Kevin Smith don’t want their hero to grow up, but the characters from “Clerks,” his sub-sophomoric 1994 comedy, can’t stay young forever.

Yes, Dante and Randal are back loitering onscreen in “Clerks II,” a raucous and rude affair with a heart as big as its New Jersey backdrop. Mr. Smith had tried — and failed — to act his age with the oh-so-precious “Jersey Girl,” but he finds a better medium for maturity with his original slackers in this sequel to his breakthrough film.

It’s more than a decade since we last saw Quick Stop clerk Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and his sex-obsessed bud Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) riffing their way through their menial jobs.

The Quick Stop is no more, thanks to a fire accidentally set by Randal, but the boys have rebounded nicely.

They’re slinging burgers at Mooby’s, a McDonald’s knock-off chain.

Their faces are a bit fuller, but on the surface everything else appears unchanged.

Then a hottie with a Mrs. Hicks T-shirt, Dante’s fiancee (Jennifer Schwalbach Smith), drops by Mooby’s. The couple is about to move to Florida, where Dante’s future in-laws have set him up with a job and a new home.

Dante proceeds as if his last day at Mooby’s is like any other, but boss Becky (a sweet and winning Rosario Dawson) is feeling blue.

It’s clear she has a crush on him, and Dante seems pretty keen on her, too. He even sneaks away to paint her toenails, a practice missing from most employee-boss relationships. But he’s about to marry a girl way above his station whose folks will set him up for life. He’d never jeopardize that for a Jersey girl like Becky.

Or would he?

“Clerks II” builds to a confrontation between the main characters, but not before Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Mr. Smith) have their say. The duo have found religion, but as in Mr. Smith’s “Dogma,” it’s hardly the kind you find at the local church.

Purists will bemoan how Mr. Smith abandoned the earlier film’s grainy palette, but the less devoted will be too busy being alternately amused and disgusted.

Mr. Smith can mine more laughs from a battle between a “Star Wars” fan and a “Lord of the Rings” junkie — “it’s three movies about walking!” — than a screenwriter should be allowed to.

After an hour of immature bits and profanity, the film finds bona fide momentum near the end. That’s assuming you can sit through a bestiality subplot and a musical number which bursts from nowhere and retreats just as fast.

The first “Clerks” let Mr. Smith dazzle with his irreverent wordplay, but he’s almost as well-known for his mundane sense of composition. His latest is far more visually interesting than his earliest films despite the drab locales, but it’s clear he’s still learning on the job.

He also has a weakness for letting his famous friends drop in at random — this time it’s Ben Affleck and Jason Lee’s turn to add little to the proceedings.

Either wildly overrated or puckishly clever depending on who you ask, Mr. Smith can still tap the mind of our inner children. “Clerks II” proves he can also lead us kicking and screaming into adulthood.

***

TITLE: “Clerks II”

RATING: R (Crude language, partial nudity, disturbing themes and comic violence)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Kevin Smith. Original music by James L. Venable.

RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes

WEB SITE: www.clerks2.com/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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