‘Clerks III’: Quick Stop characters we first met in 1994 still amuse and impress

Between a lot of callbacks and pop culture references, best friends Dante and Randal show some vulnerability in director Kevin Smith’s self-indulgent victory lap.

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Last seen together in “Clerks II” (2006), Trevor Fehrman (from left), Brian O’Halloran, Rosario Dawson and Jeff Anderson return for “Clerks III.”

Lionsgate

“I’ve never seen an entire flick set in a convenience store.”

“Because who’d want to watch that? It’s my life and I barely want to live it.”

—Exchange between old friends Randal and Dante in Kevin Smith’s “Clerks III.”

After surviving a near-fatal heart attack in 2018 and after delivering three decades’ worth of movies set in the extended “View Askewniverse,” writer-director-actor Kevin Smith can be excused for creating his own victory lap in the self-indulgent and self-referential, frequently hilarious and surprisingly warmhearted “Clerks III.”

If this movie were a knockoff brand candy sold at the charmingly squat and well-worn Quick Stop Groceries in Leonardo, New Jersey, it would have a hard exterior but a warm and gooey center.

‘Clerks III’

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Lionsgate presents a film written and directed by Kevin Smith. Rated R (for pervasive language, crude sexual material, and drug content). Running time: 100 minutes. Opens Tuesday at local theaters.

Smith and his characters returning to the Scene of his Young Prime is a little like watching a silver-haired rocker in his 50s covering his breakout hits from the 1990s while telling stories ABOUT those hits between numbers. But that’s kind of a blast, isn’t it?

“Clerks III” is a darkly funny, bittersweet curtain call for some undeniably enduring characters we first met back in 1994 when Smith famously turned an investment of $27,575 into a black-and-white indie breakthrough hit and then revisited in the 2006 sequel. (There was also a short-lived animated “Clerks” series on ABC-TV in the early 2000s, and, of course, Jay and Silent Bob branched out on their own for a couple of films.)

The opening sequence in “Clerks III” sets the tone for the medley of callbacks we’ll be seeing throughout the movie.

Brian O’Halloran, now looking more than a little like veteran character actor Stephen Root, effortlessly returns to the role of Dante, as does Jeff Anderson in the role of Dante’s best friend Randal. They’re now co-owners of the Quick Stop, and they’re still wasting away their days engaging in circular conversations laced with pop culture references, still bantering and bickering with annoying customers, still playing hockey on the rooftop — and still putting up with the pothead antics of Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith), who are still hanging out on the sidewalk. Only the video store is now a legal marijuana dispensary, and Jay and Silent Bob are the owners.

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Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) turn a video store into a weed dispensary in “Clerks III.”

Lionsgate

Much of the early humor in “Clerks III” alternates between witty dialogue touching on Smith’s favorite topics, like religion and sex and other movies. But the story becomes as serious as a heart attack when Randal collapses in the Quick Stop as a result of a 100% blockage in the “Widowmaker” LAD artery and narrowly escapes death. (This is exactly the type of heart attack Smith suffered four years ago.)

“I saw the whole movie of my life flash before my eyes,” Randal says. “And you know what? It sucked.”

Nevertheless, Randal has an epiphany: He’ll find some meaning by making a movie about his life! After all, he spent years watching movies in a video store, just like Quentin Tarantino, right?

Randal whips up a screenplay of sorts titled “Convenience Stories,” which he eventually changes to “Inconvenience,” which leads to arguably the funniest sequence in the movie: a series of auditions at the First Avenue Playhouse, with a number of celebrities putting unique spins on the famous line, “I’m not even supposed to be here today.”

The luminous Rosario Dawson makes a return of sorts as Dante’s wife, who was killed by a drunk driver years ago but still lives in his dreams, urging him to have a third act in his life.

And a number of actors who appeared in the original “Clerks” and/or “Clerks II” reprise their roles in the movie-within-the-movie.

It’s great fun, as is the moment when Silent Bob (who has been brought aboard as the director of photography) essentially breaks the fourth wall and becomes Kevin Smith, explaining why this movie will be much more effective in black-and-white than in color, ending with, “I’m shooting this movie in black-and-white, or I ain’t shooting it at all, m-----f-----.” (Sidebar: The “Inconvenience” scenes are indeed shot in glorious black-and-white, and they have a beautiful, silvery sheen.)

Even with all the callbacks and Easter eggs and pop culture bombs, “Clerks III” is, at heart, a love story between two best friends. And O’Halloran and Anderson both hit some legitimately heart-tugging notes, adding a dimension of vulnerability and humanity to Dante and Randal. It’s been a pleasure doing business with them at the Quick Stop.

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