Making Change

Here's another independent filmmaker's dream come true. Like Hal Hartley, Richard Linklater and Richard Rodriguez before them, Kevin Smith (director) and Scott Mosier (producer) maxed out a handful of credit cards and hocked prized personal effects to produce a prized -- and prize winning -- progeny. Smith's and Mosier's is Clerks, a film so scuzzy looking (one writer said it looked like it was shot with a convenience store surveillance camera) that it breaks through an aesthetic wall and comes through looking perversely stylish.

This film defines high concept, slacker-style. It tracks the doings, slight though they are, of two friends who run the registers in neighboring businesses. One, Dante (Brian O'Halloran), oversees a convenience store in repressed fashion. He sees himself as a conscientious victim, one doomed to carry out his responsibilities to the nth degree. Lowly or not, they are his, and he is theirs. Randal (Jeff Anderson) clerks the video shop next door in somewhat different fashion. For Randal, the fact that his job sucks relieves him of any obligation to faithfully execute its demands. He closes the store every few minutes to wander over and remind Dante of what a loser he is for caring about his job. Responsibility makes cowards of us all, according to Randal. In the ultimate display of independence, Randal shuts down early to go to a competitor and rent an outlandish porn video that he'll watch during "work." Imagine Beaver Cleaver as Butt-head's running mate and you'll have the general idea.

As the pair's philosophical standoff progresses, a variety of deadbeats and drug dealers drift in and out of Dante's store and become briefly involved either in one of the movie's running gags or in the wrangling itself. The gags are predictable, but funny in a foul-mouthed sitcom manner. In one, a running count of the number of guys Dante's current girlfriend has given head to finally adds up to 37. No matter; he was thinking of going back to the real love of his life, his habitually unfaithful high school girlfriend. But a wedding announcement for the high school ex appears in the local paper, and Dante has to endure a string of comments about how great she looks in the accompanying photo.

It took awhile for Clerks to grow on me. At first, I felt that all concerned were trying too hard to be quirky. Too, the dingy graininess of the film itself and the amateurish level of acting were off-putting. But once it became clear that Dante and Randal really cared about each other, and that their arguing amounted to much more than simply killing time, the film won me over, the crummy technicals becoming something like a badge of sincerity. The acting never equals the writing, but the screenplay, and the least frenetic elements of the direction, are strong enough to carry the day.

Written and directed by Kevin Smith. With Jeff Anderson, Brian O'Halloran, Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier.

Rated R.
91 minutes.

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