The milky black-and-white photography, the atmosphere of zonked deadpan boredom, the characters whose defining trait is their complete indifference to everything around them, including their own lives — from its opening frames, CLERKS announces itself as the latest slacker manifesto, an heir to those previous texts of shaggy middle-class indolence, Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Slacker (1991). Dante (Brian O’Halloran), his very name mocking the lowliness of his station, is a 22-year-old college dropout who works the counter of a convenience store in nowheresville, New Jersey. The place might be the last pit stop on earth-think Samuel Beckett at the Slurpee counter. Randal (Jeff Anderson), also 22, works next door at a video emporium so crummy that if he wants to watch a good movie, he has to go to a better store to rent it. To describe these two as friends would be an overstatement. They’re more like mutually coexistent drones.
Unlike Stranger Than Paradise or Slacker, Clerks isn’t about bohemian free thinkers whose lack of ambition is, in effect, their mark of integrity. These are low-rent suburban proles with no illusions that they’re doing anything but wasting their lives. The movie scores some nasty laughs when the two air their rather desperate attitudes toward women. The language pushes past sleaziness to a kind of nihilistic raunch, especially when Randal, a misanthropic geek, is discussing the one thing in the world he truly seems to care about: pornography. (When he finally makes it to that superior video store, he rents a movie starring two hermaphrodites.)
In another way, though, the film misses its mark. The dialogue in Clerks doesn’t match the meticulous banality of the atmosphere. It’s punchy and fake, with some of the in-your-face showiness of mediocre Off Broadway theater. O’Halloran, who’s like a doleful cross between Charlie Sheen and Griffin Dunne, and Anderson, who makes the very nakedness of his hostility oddly winning, are both crack performers. But since first-time writer-director Kevin Smith — who, yes, used to work in a convenience store — has encouraged them to step on each other’s lines, we never forget that we’re watching a low-budget stunt, one whose very scruffiness has been engineered to make it the next downtown sensation. Still, if Clerks lacks the grunge artistry of its forebears, it’s a fast, likable 90 minutes at the movies. The way our culture is going, this may be what a hip sitcom looks like in 15 years. B