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Movie review: 'Clerks III' is too serious for its own good

Dante (Brian O'Halloran, L) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) are still behind the counter in "Clerks III." Photo courtesy of Lionsgate
1 of 5 | Dante (Brian O'Halloran, L) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) are still behind the counter in "Clerks III." Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

LOS ANGELES Sept. 8 (UPI) -- Clerks is a series that began as a lark and became really dark at the end. Clerks III, in theaters Tuesday, reflects writer-director Kevin Smith's bout with mortality for better or worse, but not necessarily comedically.

Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) are still behind the counter at Quick Stop Groceries. When Randal survives a heart attack, he decides to make a movie about his life behind the counter, essentially making Clerks I.

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Smith's movies had already been getting more serious as he became a husband and father. Jay and Silent Bob Reboot was a sweet story about fatherhood, and he's made several horror movies.

So it's clear that the tragic moments of Clerks III are what Smith is really interested in, sometimes leaning so far that the film really can't land jokes around them despite trying. Tragicomedy can work, but some of the perspective of Clerks III is too nihilistic to be tragicomic.

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It's one thing for a 50-something filmmaker to reflect on his near-death experience. For two single, childless clerks, there is perhaps more baggage of lives not lived and experiences on which they've missed out.

Clerks III reckons with that for both characters. Some of it is deeper than the characters from Clerks can bear, but even at its most successful that is a dark turn for a series that began with Star Wars banter and necrophilia jokes.

The film explains away Dante's Clerks II love interest, Becky (Rosario Dawson), who still makes a few appearances. It is a clever way to deal with the limited availability of a major star, but it sets Dante back considerably from his moderately happy ending, and Clerks III may not be that interested in redeeming him.

Where Clerks III works is when it becomes a meta version of Clerks I. Dante and Randal reminisce about moments from their lives that they'll put in the movie, but those are actually scenes from Clerks.

Auditioning actors for the movie within the movie is fun, even though you know they're going to end up starring in it themselves. Some returning characters aren't so keen to revisit the events of 1994, though the film could explore further how one person's glory days could be another person's shame.

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When Dante and Randal get into making the movie, there is something to seeing the exact same scenes with the same actors now in their 50s. While remaking Clerks, Clerks III dissects a few of the scenes that may have aged oddly. That's good stuff, analyzing and re-contextualizing the first film.

Dante and Randal argue about whose life his movie is based on. Since they were both there for all of it, that speaks a bit to codependency, again not the cheeriest subject for comedy.

Randall and regulars Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) make lots of filmmaker jokes that don't reflect a filmmaker of three decades, but then Smith always shirked the standard Hollywood way of making movies. The characters are novices, but it doesn't feel like a perspective on the filmmaking process at all, amateur or professional.

A lot of Clerks III still is Dante and Randall behind the counter. Other players cycle in and out, and this time their comedy bits are hit and miss, while Clerks was all hits.

Some of the clerks' modern banter is rough. NFTs are a new phenomenon that would probably come up during an eight-hour shift, but it's not as inspired as reframing Star Wars from the independent contractor's perspective.

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Randal has opinions on recent Star Wars like The Last Jedi and The Mandalorian. That also feels like struggling to play the hits, even though Smith remains genuinely passionate about that world.

There are plenty of Easter eggs for Clerks fans. Since Clerks III is in color, you can clearly see all the fake brands on the items on the shelves.

Many fans who grew up with Clerks may be ready for a dark and gritty Clerks III. Those who just want to check in with Dante and Randal, be warned. Jay and Silent Bob Reboot is the funnier and more uplifting legacy sequel.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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