Lenny Bruce would have loved “Clerks.” Rude, boisterous, obscene and irreverently funny, it has all the crude energy and delight in life’s profane chaos that the celebrated comedian found so irresistible.
One of the discoveries of last year’s Sundance Film Festival (where it shared the Filmmakers Trophy) and later a prize-winner at the International Critics Week at Cannes, “Clerks” is also an example of what is best and most hopeful about the American independent-film scene.
Made in grainy black and white on a skimpy budget of $27,575, “Clerks” is the inspiration of 23-year-old Kevin Smith, who wrote, directed, co-edited, co-produced and even found time to play a cameo as the laconic Silent Bob.
Sporadically employed himself as a convenience-store clerk, Smith did more than write a script based on his own cool and crazy life behind the counter; he actually filmed it in the Quick Stop in Leonardo, N.J., that hired him, shooting after it closed each night at 10:30 till the small hours of the morning.
But “Clerks” is not just a case of poor movie makes good. For Smith, a film-school dropout who used part of his tuition to finance his debut, has an anarchic gift for sketch humor and the raunchy banter of guys just hanging out. Though the politically incorrect language is tough enough to have earned “Clerks” an initial NC-17 rating (re-rated R on appeal), its exuberance gives it an alive and kicking feeling that is welcome and rare.
Simply structured as a day in the life of clerk Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran), Dante’s saga begins unexpectedly with an early morning call from his boss telling him he’ll have to open the store even though it’s Saturday, his nominal day off.
Conscientious to a fault, Dante is unknowingly embarking on a spell of nonstop harassment and humiliation that leaves him understandably muttering, “bunch of savages in this town.”
On the professional side, the Quick Stop’s obstreperous customers subject Dante to a flood of eccentric behavior, from pelting him with cigarettes to scrutinizing every egg in the case to wanting the simultaneous use of the employees’ bathroom and a choice porno magazine.
Paralleling this are Dante’s romantic problems. His stand-up girlfriend Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) brings him homemade lasagna for lunch, but outrages Dante with revelations about her past sexual habits that lead to one of the film’s funniest colloquies.
And Dante can’t get his mind off his ex, the glamorous Caitlin (Lisa Spoonauer), even though they broke up years ago and she cheated on him 8 1/2 times while they were together. What was the half? A drunken tryst with Dante in a darkened room when she thought he was someone else.
Providing an ironic Greek chorus to all these woes is Dante’s best friend, Randal (Jeff Anderson), the clerk at an adjoining video store whose stock is so feeble Randal himself rents elsewhere. A prankster and instigator, Randal believes in abusing his customers whenever possible and encourages Dante to be more aggressive in his dealings with the public.
Though Randal and Dante are the center of “Clerks,” Smith has a profligate eye for odd and curious characters, and appearances by a manic drug dealer, a smug personal trainer and an intense Russian named Olaf who is desperate to play metal, are among the film’s zany highlights.
Cast with either non-professionals or actors with no more than local experience, “Clerks” is unapologetically rough and even ragged at times. But its lack of circumspection turns out to be its charm. Unabashed and unashamed, “Clerks” is always itself, and that is something of an accomplishment.
* MPAA rating: R, for explicit, sex-related dialogue. Times guidelines: Raunchy, cheerful street language is the rule.
Brian O’Halloran: Dante Hicks
Jeff Anderson: Randal
Marilyn Ghigliotti: Veronica
Lisa Spoonauer: Caitlin
Jason Mewes: Jay
Kevin Smith: Silent Bob
A View Askew production, released by Miramax Pictures. Director Kevin Smith. Producers Scott Mosier, Kevin Smiths. Screenplay Kevin Smith. Cinematographer David Klein. Editors Kevin Smith, Scott Mosier. Music Scott Angley. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.
* In limited release in Southern California.