Clerks

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(Reviewed in 2001.)

“Clerks” might have been famous just for being the first film without any nudity, sex or violence to be given an NC-17 rating. The rating was appealed and the film was released as an R, without any cuts being made.

I say “might have been.” As it happens, “Clerks” turned out to be an impressively funny film that warrants a place in our memories for artistic reasons, not backstage controversies. Now that time has passed, everyone knows “Clerks,” but most have forgotten the rating debate that almost overshadowed it.

“Clerks” was made cheap, and it shows. The film stock is inexpensive, and most of the actors aren’t actors. Some of them play multiple roles with little attempt to change their appearance. The performances are amateurish, though the two leads are passable. One is amazed that such unprofessionalism could make it to the silver screen, until one hears Kevin Smith’s wonderful dialogue. His characters are among the funniest, most intelligent speakers in the film world, mixing terms like “managerial control” and “insubordinate” with every profanity you can name.

The film covers a day in the life of Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran), an uninspired convenience store clerk who is called in on his day off and must work the entire day, from open to close. (“I’m not even supposed to be here today!” becomes his mantra after each mishap.) Dante has little regard for the general public, but he maintains a semi-polite (if not altogether professional) demeanor. At one point, he lies on the floor behind the counter to talk to his girlfriend, but leaves a sign up instructing customers to pay for the purchases on the honor system (which they do, because they think they’re being watched).

This is in contrast to his best friend Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson), who works at the tiny video store across the street. Randal has the best lines in the movie, thanks to his wise misanthropy and blatant cynicism toward every stranger he encounters. “I’m a firm believer in the philosophy of a ruling class,” he says. “Especially since I rule.”

The driving plot point is Dante’s discovery that his ex-girlfriend Caitlin (Lisa Spoonhauer) is getting married, while his current flame Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) is pressuring him to quit the convenience store and go to college. There are other problems, too, like a funeral everyone’s supposed to go to, and a street hockey game that Dante’s supposed to play in. Randal has no problem closing the video store for a couple hours, but Dante has that nagging work ethic to deal with.

Kevin Smith grew as a writer and a director as time went on. “Clerks,” while featuring fine dialogue, has some problems. Two major events are both said to have happened at 4 p.m., for example, and Veronica has college classes despite it being a Saturday. The film, while only 90 minutes or so, runs the risk of getting old before it’s finished; no matter how pithy the dialogue may be, a movie with nothing but talking is still just a movie with nothing but talking.

But you overlook that because of what’s here. There are wonderful jabs at retail jobs, with Randal and Dante each describing the typical morons they have to deal with (like the guy who comes into the video store and says, “Do you have that one with that guy who is in that movie last year?,” or the woman who looks through every gallon of milk in search of the one with an expiration date in the next century). As such, “Clerks” has become a particular favorite among young, semi-ambitious kids stuck in dead-end jobs like these.

When a customer asks what the store’s pet cat is called, and Randal says she’s named “Annoying Customer,” I don’t think I’m overstating it to suggest he’s saying what everyone in America would LIKE to say.

A- (1 hr., 32 min.; R, pervasive harsh profanity, crude language, sexual dialogue.)