This look at Smith’s filmmaking trajectory doesn’t delve deep, but it certainly isn’t a Cop Out either.
The story of Kevin Smith certainly sounds like fodder for an inspirational movie. A film geek from New Jersey cobbled some money together, grabbed a camera, and filmed a movie at his convenience store workplace.
The results? A smash hit indie feature named Clerks launched a filmmaking career and a new type of arthouse cinema. Given the impossibly lucky nature of these events, not to mention Smith’s continued presence in pop culture, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a documentary has emerged chronicling the man’s career in the form of director Malcolm Ingram’s movie Clerk.
Primarily, Clerk. looks at each of Smith’s movies in chronological order. Archival footage from the shooting of the individual features and new interview segments place projects like Dogma or Cop Out in the greater context of Smith’s career. However, this isn’t just a documentary dedicated to wacky stories from the set of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. It also devotes time to how this director got into the podcasting business, his romantic life, and how his 2018 heart attack shaped his life, among other non-cinema-related topics.
Anyone expecting a deep dive into Smith’s life and career from Clerk. can look elsewhere. Most of the stories here will be familiar to fans of the filmmaker, including where Tusk originated from and the controversies surrounding Dogma. They’re still diverting yarns to hear again, certainly. Still, it is surprising that, over a two-hour runtime, there couldn’t be more original anecdotes to unearth. Perhaps that’s what happens when you’re chronicling a director who’s an open book already, thanks to his rampant public speaking appearances.
Meanwhile, the amiable nature of the proceedings proves to be as much a blessing as it is a curse. On the one hand, it does make the feature a pleasant watch. There’s no pretense towards making this the “untold story of Kevin Smith” or anything too grandiose. Instead, it’s the documentary equivalent of a guy in a bar who just has a chill story to tell. Unfortunately, by the same token, that laidback nature means it’s a surface-level look at Smith. This explains why the stories told tend to be familiar ones and especially why the 115-minute runtime tends to drag. There’s just not enough here to justify a two-hour length.
The best parts of the lengthy proceedings tend to be ones where Clerk. reduces to just Kevin Smith just talking. There’s a reason people go to listen to Smith’s lectures and Q&A sessions. He’s got an affable presence. The way he tells stories keeps you engaged with what could happen next.
That gift is put to good use throughout Clerk., especially when the viewer gets insight into the director’s childhood. Equal levels of warmth and detail fill out the anecdotes Smith imparts to the viewer. The most intriguing moments suggest the path that leads to the man’s more idiosyncratic works, such as Mallrats.
Interview segments aren’t just limited to Justin Long’s basement-dwelling pal from Live Free or Die Hard, though. Smith’s initial producing partner Scott Mosier and a slew of other notable filmmakers also share their stories related to a filmography that includes Tusk. The best of these are comments from none other than Richard Linklater, whose motion picture Slacker inspired Smith to become a director in the first place. Linklater’s casual and humorously wry comments, including his bleakly hysterical closing remark on why he participated in Clerk., are some of the most memorable parts of the documentary.
The fleeting nature with which Clerk. delves into each of his works had me yearning for more information.
These other artists provide greater context to Smith’s career. But it’s that iconic director himself whose responsible for something even more important: the rare moment of rawness in Clerk. “You know,” Smith says at a transitional point in the film, “some people say Jersey Girl broke me.”
In a movie that’s otherwise like a warm hug, that kind of observation stands out. Granted, the fleeting nature with which Clerk. delves into each of his works had me yearning for more information. However, the discernible frustration still hits home.
On the opposite side of things tonally, the best facet of Clerk. is how it paints Kevin Smith’s most personally satisfying point as an artist is when he’s just himself. The modern version of Smith is, as the director himself puts it, “the most Kevin Smith-iest Kevin Smith I can be,” all in the pursuit of making people happy. Something is touching about seeing a guy go through the fires and flames of success only to come out the other side realizing that what’s important isn’t awards or money. It’s connecting with other people.
The laidback style of Clerk. has its shortcomings, but it does allow this eventual endpoint to feel nonchalantly impactful. Kevin Smith’s whole goal as a modern celebrity is to be an everyman who can give you a fun evening or podcast session of jokes and anecdotes. Framing this documentary in more grandiose terms would’ve undercut the low-key qualities that Smith loves so much in his present-day life. For better and for worse, Clerk. is a fitting ode to an indie movie legend who has no interest in acting like a legend.
Clerk. is now serving customers on VOD.