Clerk Review: He’s Not Even Supposed To Be Here
It seems likely there will be two different audiences watching “Clerk,” the documentary about Kevin Smith: Those who love Smith and want to know even more about his open-book life, and those who want to know why the hell this guy is still famous. A film should be judged on what it sets out to do and how well it puts the ball between the goalposts, and “Clerk” does an excellent job at giving both those audiences exactly what they’re looking for.
The film’s official logline describes Smith as an “indie icon and raconteur,” but as you’re watching the flick it becomes dizzyingly clear that he’s so much more. The Jersey boy made good is also a podcaster, a producer, a quasi-journalist, a TV star, a marketing and social media pioneer, inspiration for a street hockey league — and to many over the last 25 years, a has-been.
Maybe they stopped being fans when he followed up “Clerks” with the big-budget bomb “Mallrats.” Maybe they abandoned him over the religious backlash surrounding “Dogma.” Maybe they thought Smith went too far when he dangled “Red State” in front of Hollywood, only to reveal a publicity stunt. Maybe the weed, or the association with Harvey Weinstein, or something he tweeted made them tune out of Smith’s View Askewniverse. But what “Clerk” depicts is a man still plugging away, still here long after his 15 minutes should have been up, and he’s more comfortable with himself than ever before.
“I was a fan of myself. It’s important to be a fan of yourself,” he says about some of his P.T. Barnum-like self-promotion techniques over the years, which have included joining the picket lines outside his own films. “I’m proud to be a Kevin Smith fan. I like Kevin Smith movies.”
“Clerk” begins where it should, at the New Jersey convenience store where he once rode the register, then used as the key location in his on-the-cheap debut film, which became a Sundance sensation. It follows him through each and every one of his movies (for a fun drinking game, take a shot whenever Smith says he was convinced a given film would be his first to make $100 million), the ups and the downs and the evolutions and the families he made (both on-set and in real life) and the 2018 heart attack that nearly sent him to the big Comic-Con in the sky.
Jay and not-so-silent Bob
One of Smith’s greatest skills has always been his ability to inspire and unite those around him, so it’s only appropriate that “Clerk” tell his story through interviews with longtime collaborators including Scott Mosier, Walter Flanagan and Jay Mewes (the doc is directed by Malcolm Ingram, another longtime Smith compatriot), big-name actors Smith has directed like Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Justin Long, and high-profile admirers including Richard Linklater, Jason Reitman (who proudly shows off the “Clerks” ticket stub he still holds dear), and the late Stan Lee.
You might know a lot of these stories — in fact, a case could be made that Smith is the most self-chronicled public figure of the last quarter century. But even if you’ve listened to all his hundreds of hours of podcasts, you might not realize the extent to which his f-bomb-heavy, bathroom humor flicks empowered others (“Ghostbusters: Afterlife” filmmaker Reitman and “Impractical Jokers” star Brian Quinn), launched the careers of Affleck and Damon (who credit him with getting “Good Will Hunting” made), helped advance the cause of gay representation in media (“Chasing Amy”) and ushered in the current era of superhero dominance in Hollywood (as cited by no less than Stan Lee himself). Then he influenced still more by pivoting to online merch sales, by engaging his fan base on social media — and by walking away.
“At a certain point, I gave up on the notion of Kevin Smith, filmmaker … maybe it’s because the critics were like ‘he’s no filmmaker,'” he says at one point. “I was like, all right, they’re right. But I got to a point where I’m like, I think I’m going to be so much more. And because of that, I wound up being myself for a living.”
As Smith would say, he’s trying to be the best Kevin Smith he can be — and as those who’ve attended one of his public appearances can attest, he’s really good at it. The man obviously has the gift of gab and can spin a yarn with the best of them — but he also takes the time to sign autographs, pose for selfies, and give out hugs and handshakes far beyond the limitations of virtually any other celebrity.
At some point, the film becomes a portrait of a public personality who has had more reinventions than Madonna. Take 2008’s “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” for instance, a stressful shoot that changed Smith’s life in a most unexpected way. According to the doc, on the set of “Zack and Miri,” Seth Rogen introduced Smith to pot — and he’s been stoned every day since.
“From ‘Zack and Miri’ forward, weed has been a factor in all of that,” says Smith, who lights up multiple times on camera and is certainly not debating the fact. He’s also quick to point out that in the years since, his productivity has skyrocketed.
On the other end of the pendulum is the Weinstein matter. When the co-founder of Miramax became the face of the #MeToo movement in 2017, his name had been attached to every film Smith had made. “Everybody seemed to know he was a philanderer,” Smith says in his defense. “In the pages of the New York Times, I learned about a guy I had no idea I existed.” In response to the headlines, Smith has donated all future royalties from those movies to Women in Film.
All these years after “Clerks” made him an overnight success, Kevin Smith is still figuring out ways to stay ahead of expectations. His story is one of people constantly expecting him to be something, then Smith becoming something wholly different. At a time when folks love to talk about thinking outside the box, love to talk about not being afraid to fail, love to talk about engaging fans rather than talking at them, it’s fascinating to watch the career pitfalls and successes of someone who has actually done all that — and most likely won’t be appreciated for it until after he’s gone.
“If film was the only thing I did, I’d be done. I’d be out of this business, a long time ago,” he admits. “Now I just want to be Kevin Smith. I want to be the Kevin Smith-iest Kevin Smith I can be, from now until the end of time, because that’s all I have going for me. That’s all I’ve ever had going for me, and that’s all they’ll remember about me when I’m gone.”
Some love him, some hate him, some wonder why he won’t just go away. But anyone who watches “Clerk” and doesn’t come away with a newfound appreciation of the teary-eyed man who says his life has been “a little boy’s wish coming true, over and over, and over again” … well, maybe they deserve a chocolate-covered-pretzel handshake.