Retro Reviews: Clerks (1994)

Brian O'Halleran, who played the role of Dante Hicks, in a photo from 2015.

Brian O’Halleran played Dante Hicks. Photo from 2015.

Dante Hicks blunders his way through an uninspired existence. The high point of his life is getting the day off from his despised job at the local convenience/movie rental store.

Dante isn’t a very competent, motivated or responsible employee. Yet he deserves an employee of the year award compared to his long-time coworker and nominal friend, Randall Graves. Randall hates his job too, but enjoys insulting customers and doing exactly as he pleases at work. Dante bottles up his frustration, smooths over conficts Randall creates, and strives weakly to meet expectations.

Dante constantly worries and regrets. All the while hating himself.

So, of course, Dante agrees to fill in at work when his boss calls him on his day off. Despite the likelihood of missing out on a much anticipated hockey match with his friends in the park.

And, of course, Randall makes sure everything that possibly can go wrong, does. Walking off the job whenever he feels the urge, cigarette sales to four year-olds, ruining a friend’s wake, messing up Dante’s already messed up love life.

Dante blames Randall for ruining his life. Yet is Dante afraid to admit he’s his own worst enemy?

Hilarity ensues from the absurd, often unexpected situations, clever script and presentation of ’90s slacker youth culture. The convenience store is a sad universe of losers, hucksters, druggies, perverts and weirdos. It just barely keeps from spinning out of control since the inmates are running the asylum!

Clerks is a low budget, black and white, monaural film. It lacks big name actors. So the acting is often choppy. Don’t expect deep character development. This film is a cult classic because the characters are walking stereotypes most ’90s Gen-Xers identified with.

It’s revered much in the same way Gen-Xers 10 or 15 years older, such as myself, revere Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Unlike Fast Times, however, Clerks isn’t bittersweet, but merely bitter. The characters aren’t suburban adolescents hoping for a bright future while dealing with indignities and misunderstandings in their struggle to grow up. They’re impoverished, unloved young adults who really haven’t grown up.

By the mid-’90s, tail end of the grunge music era and beginning of the “service economy,” it had become obvious to most in my generation that our future wasn’t terribly bright. Neither would we bask in the self-absorbed glory of “changing the world” like our Dr. Spock-raised, Woodstock flower-power parents or older siblings.

Still, there is no reason why adults of any age can’t find lots in this period piece to appreciate. The misadventures of a mismatched pair of oddball characters is a winning comedy formula older even than Walter Mathau and Jack Lemmon in The Odd Couple. As is the workplace comedy of Office Space and other classics.

The film was a surprise box office success, though it played mainly in art houses. It won critical acclaim, including two thumbs-up from critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. And it won awards at Sundance and the Cannes Film Festival, among others.

Clerks became a successful franchise, inspiring two sequels, TV and animated series, and Clerks comics. The soundtrack features music from alternative, punk and grunge bands typical of the era such as Alice in Chains and Soul Asylum.

Profanity and very sexually explicit language make Clerks inappropriate for children. Available streaming on Netflix as of this writing.

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  1. Lin Jenkinson

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