WHO'S MINDING THE STORE?

Clerks calls to mind Eddie Murphy's story of his first standup routine, performed when he was an adolescent. He had had none of the sexual or other adult experiences that comedians normally draw on for material, so he used the only "blue" subject he was acquainted with, and told jokes about going to the toilet. In the same way, convenience-store clerk turned writer/director Kevin Smith, who's not yet 25, drew on what he knew and made a comedy about the agonies of working as counter help.

Films like Clerks run the risk of suffering from overpraise. This indie was made for about what a bag of Doritos costs at inflated convenience-store prices, but it has good performances, some fine banter and effective black-and-white cinematography. That's no small achievement, but it falls considerably short of comedy-classic status. If you go expecting a scrappy first effort with some solid laughs and a nice look, you'll be fine, but if you go expecting more, you may be disappointed.

The central characters are Dante (Brian O'Halloran), a bright, polite fellow who hates his job at a New Jersey minimart, and Randal (Jeff Anderson), a caustic, impolite fellow who thoroughly enjoys his job at the low-grade video joint next door--enjoys coming in late, insulting, ignoring and arguing with the customers, and frequently closing the place up to go next door to BS with Dante. They are both contemptuous of their work environments; that's all that separates them from the creepy folks who patronize the place, and who seem, eerily, to want to be there.

A wisp of plot is provided by Dante's girlfriend crisis--he's wrestling with whether to stick with his current sweetie (Marilyn Ghigliotti) or rekindle a romance with an old high school flame (Lisa Spoonauer, who makes a convincing Jersey princess). But the meat of Clerks is episodic, made up of wacky encounters with neighborhood weirdos and long rap sessions full of obscenity and skewed reasoning and an undercurrent of deep mutual affection. Dante and Randal, of course, are the movie's real love match.

Smith brings off some funny gags. His only weakness is for overextending a good bit until it goes sour. When Randal, reading a magazine as he watches the counter for Dante, absently hands a pack of cigarettes and a book of matches to a 4-year-old girl, it's a wonderfully nasty image--a perfect visual joke. But when it's followed by a close-up of the girl putting a cig in her mouth, it loses its throwaway sharpness. When a yuppie-ish guy starts railing at his fellow customers about the dangers of smoking, it has a free-floating zaniness that comes crashing down when we find out he works for a chewing-gum company. Sadly, these aren't isolated examples--Smith keeps pushing all his best ideas further than they want to go. Still, Clerks must be considered one of the better "slacker" comedies to have come along so far. It's far below the level of Slacker, but it beats the less gracefully masturbatory My Life's in Turnaround and it really beats the woeful Reality Bites

 
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