‘Clerk’: Film Review | SXSW 2021

Malcolm Ingram (‘Small Town Gay Bar’) chronicles the career of longtime associate Kevin Smith in ‘Clerk.’

Walking viewers through one of the most unlikely careers in recent movie history, Clerk finds one of Kevin Smith’s longtime collaborators interviewing practically everyone in the writer/director/podcaster/raconteur/etc’s orbit. It’s a beat-by-beat chronology in which even shameful entries on the filmography (Cop Out, Yoga Hosers) get at least a mention, and where others are remembered perhaps too fondly. Listening to one of Smith’s speaking engagements would be a much more entertaining way for a fan to spend 115 minutes, and non-fans or fence-sitters will likely find this piece too puffy to be very useful. But few will deny that Smith is good company — an always-likable guide happy to make jokes at his own expense while he works to be the “Kevin Smith-iest” Kevin Smith he can be.

The doc begins with a surprisingly earnest self-shot 1992 video, in which Smith tells his parents what they mean to him as he sets off for a Vancouver film school. Soon we’re in the present tense, in the passenger seat as the director cruises his home turf and shows us, for instance, the community center where he met future collaborators. This stuff is as uncinematic as the flattest moments in Smith’s films, and may inspire dread; but what’s to come is less an exercise in self-mythology than an easygoing look backward for a man who was almost killed by a heart attack in 2018.

The Bottom Line

A friendly career recap for fans.

In movie-culture terms, the narrative is most involving at the start, as Slacker inspires Smith to make the DIY comedy that won Sundance and arthouses over in 1994. Longtime friends John and Janet Pierson recall the energy of that festival debut and the ensuing critical enthusiasm, and will pop up frequently in the film. Jason Reitman shows us the ticket stub for the screening he caught, and surprises us by revealing it was Smith, not his father, who most inspired his own entry into directing. “I didn’t think arthouse movies could be funny” until Clerks, he says.

Smith fled the arthouse immediately, of course. Taking a page from Richard Linklater’s book (and teaming with his producer Jim Jacks), he followed his indie darling up with a multiplex-ready teen comedy. But whereas Linklater gave us the classic Dazed and Confused, Smith’s gleefully juvenile Mallrats cost him the critical support that launched Clerks. If not for a breakthrough performance by Jason Lee, the box office bomb might be completely forgotten now.

Smith had a few high-profile bombs. He alludes more than once to the dream of a $100 million gross, something he thought was within reach for not just his broad comedies but for the heartfelt Jersey Girl. As he, longtime producer Scott Mosier, and others recount the flow from each project to the next, the logic of most moves makes sense. But on their own, the movies would probably not have kept the Kevin Smith business going.

Around its midpoint, the film introduces the many other ways Smith has grown his loyal fan base. His web site was one of the first places in which a celebrity interacted directly with followers. He started turning crowd-pleasing post-movie Q&As into full-blown speaking tours, then kept the words flowing (and flowing, and flowing) on a podcast that soon birthed a full network. (Ingram has hosted podcasts there with Smith’s on-screen sidekick Jason Mewes, and several of his films have Smith and/or Mosier in producing roles.) There were cartoons, comic-book adaptations and a gig penning titles for Marvel, a comic book store…and then merch.

The enthusiasm generated by all this non-movie activity buoyed Smith through many reversals, and his entrepreneurial success likely fueled the controversial choice to self-distribute his unforeseeable 2011 thriller Red State. By this point, the doc is splitting focus between career, Smith’s happy family life, his newfound love of weed and his health issues, with a very brief detour to address his relationship with Harvey Weinstein. (“All I knew was he cheated on his wife,” Smith says; he’s pledged all future residuals from his Weinstein output to Women in Film.)

Wrapping up with the kind of glowing testimonials often heard when somebody has had a brush with death or died, the doc never claims to be an objective evaluation of Smith’s hit-and-miss oeuvre. It’s for the fans, and maybe for some who gave up on Smith years ago and have wondered if there’s anything they should catch up on. Anybody in the latter group should soon get another chance: Though not mentioned in the doc, Smith has reportedly finished a draft for Clerks III and hopes to shoot it this year.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Spotlight)
Production company: TCB Productions
Director: Malcolm Ingram
Producers: Malcolm Ingram, Craig Fleming
Executive producers: Christopher Tyler Mayerson, Nhaelan McMillan, Jordan Monsanto
Director of photography: Bruce Lee Roberts III
Editor: Sean Stanley
Composer: Martin Rae
115 minutes