It's Dante and Randal who strike back in "Clerks II," a softer, flabbier and considerably higher-budgeted follow-up to Kevin Smith's 1994 indie sensation that nevertheless packs enough riotous exchanges and pungent sexual obscenities to make its 97 minutes pass by with ease. Politically incorrect raspberries and the umpteenth appearance of Jay and Silent Bob aside, a gentle feeling of nostalgia pervades this hit-or-miss sequel, which relocates the gang to the ninth circle of fast-food restaurant hell. "Clerks" cultists will need no kicks in the groin to step up to the counter for this second go-round, courtesy of the Weinstein Co.
Brief prologue neatly dispenses with both the Quick Stop supermarket and the black-and-white aesthetic from the original film, forcing New Jerseyites Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) to move on to the Technicolor glory of Mooby's. Behind the counter of this cow-themed burger joint (where menu items are prefaced with words like "udderly delicious"), affable Dante and confrontational motor-mouth Randal continue their routine of doing nothing in particular, occasionally reporting to manager Becky Scott (a sassy Rosario Dawson). Dante has grown unusually close to Becky in recent months, despite the fact that he's engaged to a perky control freak (played by Smith's real-life wife, Jennifer Schwalbach Smith) and intends to start a new life with her down in Florida.
The use of color may strike some auds as a concession to the mainstream (the first "Clerks" wore its grungy monochrome like a badge of honor), as might the prominently played and occasionally gooey scenes of romantic flirtation between Dante and Becky, some of which involve toenail-painting. Yet if "Clerks II" doesn't have quite the scabrous kick of its predecessor, the chance to revisit a classic premise must have renewed the writer in Smith, whose banter here often achieves a sharpness and quality that haven't been in evidence since 1999's "Dogma."
In addition to all the gags, quips and extended rants about subjects like masturbation, anal-oral contact, bestiality, sex with pickles, and the difference between Anne Frank and Helen Keller, Smith is at his best as a self-implicating satirist of geek culture. The apex is a genuinely inspired debate between Randal and lower-ranking employee Elias (Trevor Fehrman) about the relative merits of "Star Wars" vs. "Lord of the Rings" ("They're three movies about walking!").
What's missing is a colorful gallery of customers comparable to those who wandered in and out of the Quick Stop in the original pic. The best "Clerks II" can do is cough up brief cameos from Smith regulars Ben Affleck and Jason Lee, as well as a typically noisy display of attitude from Wanda Sykes. And of course, drug-dealing, wall-leaning duo Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) are back in the flesh, still contributing nothing to society in mildly amusing fashion.
As a director, Smith's visual command remains strictly rudimentary, though perfectly suited to his ambitions. Final scene, which briefly reverts back to black-and-white, has the wistful feel of both a return and a farewell.
Camera (Technicolor/B&W), David Klein; music, James L. Venable; production designer, Robert Holtzman; art director, Marc Fisichella; set decorator, Susan Lynch; costume designer, Roseanne Fiedler; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Whit Norris; sound designer, Tom Myers; supervising sound editor, Michael Silver; visual effects supervisor/producer, Joseph Grossberg; assistant director, Tony Steinberg. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (non-competing), May 26, 2006. Running time: 97 MIN.
With: Jennifer Schwalbach Smith, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith.