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With Clerks II, Kevin Smith successfully mines his roots, but leaves the question of “growth” unanswered

That contingent of moviegoers which believes that Kevin Smith is a one-note filmmaker, doomed to embarrass himself when he tries to stretch beyond pop-culture references and dirty dialogue, is bound to feel some kind of vindication this week, as Smith returns to the Quick Stop after trying his hand at making a mainstream romantic comedy, the much-loathed Jersey Girl.

They’re not even supposed to be here today: Dante and Randal man the counters again in Clerks II.

Smith sometimes seems to be a part of that contingent himself. When I spoke with him last week, he mocked the idea that he should “grow as a filmmaker”: “It’s been 12 years, doesn’t anyone fucking get it? This is all I can do! I’m not that talented, people! You know, I can’t imagine anyone going, ‘He really let us down, he didn’t live up to our expectations,’ because I can’t imagine anybody watching Clerks or Mallrats and thinking, ‘We have high expectations.’”

Of course, some of this is just self-deprecation from an artist who, thanks to fanboy internet sites, knows exactly what people love and hate about his movies. His post-Clerks career has been an attempt to balance those strong points with plots that explore Smith’s own interest in topics weightier than blow jobs and Death Stars. While he understands that people hated Jersey Girl, for instance, he continues to wonder what would have happened had the movie not starred a pair of celebrities who had worn out their welcome with the public; he also theorizes that “if I’d done a Stephen King/Richard Bachman kind of thing, where I removed my name, nobody knew I made it, and put it out into the marketplace, I can almost guarantee you it wouldn’t have gotten reviewed so harshly.”

Maybe, maybe not. But if making a sequel to his hit debut seems like a cop-out to some, it’s also a way for Smith to return to his strong suit while taking another crack at the techniques and themes associated with “real” movies: Clerks II has montage and camera movement, it weaves a familiar romantic-comedy plot into its filthy banter, it’s in color, and it even has a celebrity (Rosario Dawson) front-and-center on the poster.

Some of these upgrades work, some feel gratuitous, and some (like a long, honestly emotional climax between two characters who in the original movie were happily depicted as pathos-free) threaten to throw the film’s vibe off-course. The good news is that what works works well, and that here, “growth” means not just the use of a craning camera shot, but the introduction of an occasional extraordinary comic riff (the best is delivered by a new character, Elias, who is the sequel’s most successful addition) beyond the reach of Clerks but well within its galaxy. Twelve years later, Smith’s filmmaking potential is still a matter for debate; in Clerks II, he has a good time posing the question.

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