Kevin Smith's debut film is one the great examples of how wonderfully original films from the American Indie Film Movement of the 90s could be. Shot in black-and-white -- not for artistic reasons, but for the sole purpose of lowering the film's cost. Clerks follows Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran), a convenient store manager, and his friend Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson), who works in the video-store. Both men have no drive or direction, all-in-all there is nothing interesting about them, at all. By somehow making us care for these two characters who bring so little to the table says a lot about Kevin Smith's talent at creating characters who get our affection through relating to us in such simple ways.
Dante's relationship problems would not even get the attention of a dedicated eavesdropper in real-life, but by showing it to us on the screen, along with Smith's usual, always witty and memorable presentation, we get a chance to see how those little everyday problems can have profound impacts on the people involved in them. Dante is a very whiny man who is the safe character to lead Clerks' array of misfit-like personalities, although he is one of the most frustrating ones. He makes the smallest of problems seem crippling; yes, that is his characteristic, but that doesn't mean you have to enjoy them. His pessimistic qualities do work well -- he is also probably how Smith pictures himself -- but listening to his complaining for too much time could give you a headache. He struggles to determine what he feels for his current girlfriend, Veronica (Marilyn Ghiglotti), and his ex-girlfriend, Caitlin (Lisa Spoonhauer), who he still has feelings for. Most of those problems are talked about while the ladies aren't present, and also mostly in back-and-forth arguments with Randal.
The first relationship-related conflict is between Dante and Veronica who get into an argument about their sexual histories; Veronica is shocked that Dante has slept with 12 different girls (which I find highly unlikely), when she only has slept with 3 men. But she fails to mention her more unique sexual stat that is brought up by one of her ex-boyfriends who happens to stop by the store at just the right time. Chance meetings like that really keep this one day time-frame working well. That little argument is just the start to a roller-coaster of a day for Dante; in his normal whiny fashion he continually reminds everyone around him "I''m not even supposed to be here!!"
It is Dante's problems and struggles throughout day that we really get acquainted with, although, Jeff Anderson's performance as Randal is the most entertaining; he acts the way all of us are too afraid to act like, and he treats people with an addicting disrespect that turn into some of the most hilarious scenes of the film; the occasional scenes showing Randal "working" in the video-store and how he treats the customers bring out some genuine belly-laughs. Anderson is at home with the character of Randal. I wonder what his thoughts were when given that role; it probably went like this, "So, I get paid to talk about sex, porn, and movies, while also getting to act like an asshole to everyone? I'll do it!!" A role of a lifetime that he plays wonderfully.
Always interrupting the pointless, yet endless, problems that Dante and Randal face are the colorfully un-colorful characters who pass through the convenient store; what adds to the fun of the film is when you can actually compare those random store shoppers to people you know in your own life; the old man who makes a trip to the bathroom take the preparation of a trip cross-country really reminded me of my grandfather. Smith really does try to impress us with his ability to create characters who are straight-forward, but when put in just the right situations are able to really shine.
Much of the film is taken up by lengthy discussions that tackle subjects like the endings to the Star Wars films, infidelity, humiliating ways to die, and the directionless ways of living. Those discussions are lengthy with no abundance of profane language and gross-out topics, with some occasional sincerity. Smith pretty much made his script through his point-of-view which is interesting, while the ideas aren't the least bit original, though his ways of expressing his ideas are quite original. Also it is the way he presents his ideas, rants, and discussions that turn out to be the strongest qualities of this film. I did not find this to be the indie classic it is so often considered, but I never once didn't enjoy it, Smith does a good job showcasing his talents in the right ways.
In the midst of his dialogue that is mostly made up of elaborate, nerdy discussions, dirty, sex-related, rants, and profanity-spewing arguments, Smith shows off his wonderfully original views on relationships and love. Chasing Amy (1997) is the film where he would perfect that quality in his film. Here he always adds that hint of real-life problems, but he also never lets anything be taken too seriously. Every heartfelt discussion is overpowered by his comedic talents; we care about his characters, but how much do we care? I did not find myself imagining fairy tale endings for them, in the end I still just saw them as store clerks who I just happened to understand a little better. Smith has a real talent for situational comedy -- to the point where I could see him having some real success in sit-coms.
Kevin Smith was working on a low-budget and in response his film becomes a dedication to the people he was like before getting his break; broke, confused, and always overreacting and over thinking. When watching this film it is hard not to feel a resemblance to Richard Linklater's documentary-style debut film, Slacker (1991). Both films follow characters who have no clue what they are going to do with their lives (Slacker follows a much larger supply of them). Smith's style is interesting and enjoyable, but not completely satisfying. His humor hits dead-on sometimes while seeming to try too hard at other times, and his emotional talents are uneven. The ending gives no answers, it just ends; another day down a life left to go. Clerks is enjoyable, with the blueprint to the style of Kevin Smith's future films laid down very well, but also you can see the flaws that have plagued him during his career also. Smith was born to entertain, but he has yet to figure out how to emotionally settle his busy films.