Clerks told the story of a couple of twentysomethings who hung on to the kind of low-wage jobs they held while in high school. Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) worked the cash register at a New Jersey convenience store, and his best pal Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) passed out rentals at the adjacent video store. Dante dabbled in courses at a junior college; Randal was way too devoted a screwoff to waste his time with anything "edifying." Jump cut a decade to Clerks II and very little has changed. When the Quick Stop and video store burn down in the opening scene, Dante and Randal take jobs slinging burgers and fries at a day-glo fast-food joint called Mooby's. Randal is still as pugnacious and consciously provocative as ever, still maintaining that all life-lessons worth learning can be gleaned from multiple viewings of the Star Wars saga. Dante is still a forlorn wannabe, not focused enough to try his hand at anything that might satisfy him, but dissatisfied with being a slacker, now one ominously grown long in the tooth.
The one narrative element different in the sequel drives its plot. Dante is engaged, and his voluptuous and sexually inexhaustible fianc Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach, aka Mrs. Kevin Smith) is determined that they abandon Jersey for the soft life in Florida where Emma's dad will outfit them with a house and a carwash for Dante to manage. The wedding is planned, the invitations are engraved, and the couple is scheduled to hit the road for Gatorland tomorrow. Dante and Emma regard their looming new life as glamorous, but we are very much supposed to notice that it doesn't sound all that different, a little more comfortable perhaps, but fundamentally the same. Becky (Rosario Dawson in a terrifically natural performance), Dante's beautiful boss at Mooby's, thinks Dante is about to make a big mistake, ironically, given that he's never pursued anything, that he's nonetheless settling. Randal agrees in part. He thinks Dante is foolish to leave Jersey but only because he can't imagine why his buddy isn't deliriously happy with the life he has. So, will Clerks III be set in the Sunshine or the Garden state?
The issue of Dante's going or staying is debated around the edges of Randal's midnight-blue riffs about sexual etiquette, his contemptuous intellectual jousts with fans of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and his staging of that most tasteful of entertainment for Dante's going away party: a live sex act with a donkey. Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (writer/director Smith) also show up to do their requisite slacker-generation, Groucho/Harpo act about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. If you laughed at such material the first time, you probably will again. I did.
The serious side of Clerks II, and there is one, revisits issues Smith addressed in Chasing Amy. First, why are humans so often involved with the wrong people? In this instance, why is Dante about to marry Emma when he's better friends with Becky? Second, why does man's involvement with woman have to alter his relationship with his male friends? Dante fails to recognize it, but Randal regards losing daily association with his friend as the kind of betrayal we might otherwise associate with a divorce. Moreover, Smith ultimately confronts the life/work issue that has rested at the core of Clerks all along. Though we have been encouraged to laugh at Dante and Randal as underachievers, Smith now asks what's wrong with the kind of life they've been leading. Aren't friendship and family far more important than professional prestige? These last ruminations are actually a more outrageous challenge to mainstream American sensibility than is Smith's raunchy sense of humor.