A scene from Clerks III.

Kevin Smith is the meta-movie king, and he’s gotten the Clerks gang back together for his most well-rounded and consistently funny directorial accomplishment in years. Especially surprising is the fact that Clerks III—playing in theaters starting Tuesday, Sept. 13, for a limited time—is rather moving.

I am an unabashed Smith fan, but his films have never impressed me on the honest-emotions front. Hey, the man makes me laugh, often with fart and dick jokes, and I love him for it. That all changes, however, with Clerks III. He’s endured some major life events; they have a big influence on this picture, and the result feels different than anything he’s done before. Yes, there are fart and dick jokes aplenty, but there are also a lot of genuine, feel-good smiles, as well as profound real-life musings and tears.

Smith’s first film, Clerks, made him an instant indie-film hero back in 1994. He maxed out his credit cards and got his pals to act in a self-produced, black-and-white movie based on the convenience store in which he was working, inspired by Richard Linklater’s Slacker. In the three decades since, many films in Smith’s View Askewniverse—most notably 2006’s Clerks 2—have revisited the Quick Stop and its two grouchy clerks, Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson).

In 2018, Smith suffered what is known as the widowmaker, a heart attack with only a 20% survival rate. In Clerks III, Randal suffers a widowmaker early in the film—an event that leads to his decision to make a movie about his life. That movie is to be shot in the Quick Stop with Dante and his friends for roughly $28,000, with Dante producing, and the two playing themselves. This make-believe movie within a movie is essentially Kevin Smith’s career-spawning Clerks, and the meta-fun begins.

O’Halloran and Anderson were not great actors in their film debuts; they were fairly stiff, but supremely enjoyable as whining and wisecracking 20-somethings. In Clerks III, they are 50ish, and they both deliver spellbinding dialogues with serious, teary emotion that give the film the sort of realness a Kevin Smith movie has never really achieved before. In fact, O’Halloran has a scene late in the film that is, by far, the best acting ever to occur in a Smith movie. It’s a beautiful thing to behold, and it’s great to see O’Halloran smashing it. It’s as if everything he’s done with Smith throughout the years has been leading up to this moment. He also does well on the silly side, with cartoonish slapstick and well-timed, over-acted drunkenness. He’s all over the place—and it’s fun to watch.

Similarly, Anderson goes well beyond his usual snarky line deliveries (no dig here; Anderson is the cinema snark master) to reach new onscreen emotional heights of his own. He successfully switches gears, from dark, to funny, to heartfelt, back to dark, in effortless—and dare I say endearing—fashion. With Smith as his heart-attack coach, Anderson nails the moment.

While Clerks III is propelled by scary heart-attack stuff, it is still funny as hell. Jason Mewes and Smith again kill as Jay and Silent Bob, and the movie within the movie provides hilarious chances for them and the rest of the cast to re-create scenes from the original Clerks. (They are still dancing monsters!)

Mewes got his own opportunity to go a little deeper with 2019’s Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, a rumination on fatherhood, and this time out, he gets to do a slightly wackier version of his “real Jay” from the original Clerks, redoing iconic moments with a twist. It’s actually his little daughter at the counter with his real-life wife during one of the film’s biggest laughs. Smith—skinny and tanned, having taken up hiking and becoming a vegetarian—still charms as the man of few words. His monologue about shooting a film in black and white is priceless.

A highlight of the supporting cast is Trevor Fehrman, returning to his Clerks II role of Elias, the Lord of the Rings and Bible fanatic. He believes he is responsible for Randal’s heart attack after a prayer to God for his demise, so he renounces Jesus—and this begins a running gag of passionate Satan worship. His every scene entry features a new variation on goth getups that would give Rob Smith of The Cure a huge boner. There are also many cameos from Smith regulars (Ben Affleck, Justin Long, etc.) and the return of Marilyn Ghigliotti from Clerks as Veronica, aka 37.

This might be the last of the Clerks films, but the View Askewniverse lives on, and so does Smith, thank God—or Satan, whichever you prefer. I can’t wait to see that recently proposed Tusk sequel!

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