Director: Kevin Smith. Cast: Brian O'Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Marilyn Ghigliotti, Lisa Spoonhauer, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith. Screenplay: Kevin Smith.

For better or worse, Clerks, Kevin Smith's 1994 debut film, looks and sounds exactly like the film that its two perpetually ironic, smart but bored, capable but cynical protagonsists would have made about themselves—were they suddenly to gather the necessary energy and wherewithal. Shot for a mere $27,000 on low-grade black & white film, Clerks focuses on a single workday endured by two retail slaves, Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson), in their small, inauspicious New Jersey town. Necessarily limited in terms of scope and technology, and saddled additionally with almost universally unexperienced actors, Clerks valiantly tries to turn its handicaps into strengths, emphasizing a crude, boisterous sense of humor and a simple vignette structure that keep the movie rolling and provide for a few genuine, satisfying laughs. The film's setting even explains and necessitates, to an extent, its flat, monotonous, and ungainly camera angles; we almost feel as though we are watching the clerks through the static security cameras that are nestled around their stores.

This effect of the photography may or may not have been intended—Smith's clumsy, carelessly framed shots in Chasing Amy and the worthless Mallrats suggest he may not know any other way to shoot his movies—but the visual regime adds atmospheric credibility to a movie whose dialogue is so determined to sound off-the-cuff and rambling that it repeatedly comes across as over-deliberate and strained. Smith takes too long drawing out joke scenarios whose punchlines are obvious from the outset, and he has trouble writing conversations between his two protagonists that are as clever or interesting as what they say and do in the increasingly rare moments they spend apart. The biggest problem with Clerks is that, like its two lead characters, it too often confuses jaded wit and smart-ass sarcasm with actual content and character development; I got tired of hearing so many smug, deprecating jokes from Dante and Randal, who both use humor to hide the fact that they are no more interesting, at least as Smith has written them, than the customers and passers-through they ridicule. Smith attempts late in the screenplay to provide Randal with this very epiphany about his and Dante's hypocritical, too-cool-for-school posturing, but the gesture rings false in a movie that has found nothing else to offer its audience but a smirking, sometimes ingratiating but sometimes aggravating bravado.

Clerks is certainly not without its chuckles, but the hit-to-miss ratio is not nearly as high as it needs to be to really pull off as slender a project as this. It's the kind of movie where the good parts make you feel bad for disliking the bad ones—and yet, when those long and frequent problem patches are playing out, it's hard to remember what you were enjoying so much a few minutes beforehand. Grade: C

Cannes Film Festival: Prix de la Jeunesse
Sundance Film Festival: Filmmakers Trophy (tie with Fresh)

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