Clerk is an extensive look at Kevin Smith, a man who has done nothing but talk about himself for 20 years. It’s not revelatory and actually feels like a less insightful look at the man than what you’d get by listening to a few episodes of Smith’s SModcast or following him on Instagram. That’s not the fault of director Malcolm Ingram. He does a thorough job crafting a broad, chronological look at Smith’s filmmaking career and artistic ambitions over the past 30 years. The film is two hours long and includes bits and pieces about all of Smith’s projects, although rarely with as much detail as you’d hear on one of Smith’s podcasts. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Clerk besides maybe the extensive running time, but its direct competition with its subject’s own definitive products calls into question the necessity of a traditional documentary in an age where artists have spent decades opening their hearts to their adoring fanbases.
To be fair, the film touches on this notion. Smith was a pioneer in connecting himself with the cult who followed his films. He adapted to online message-board culture in the early 2000s, and started his SModcast network years before podcasts really exploded into the mainstream. Starting with his 2011 film Red State, Smith has utilized that fanbase to explore alternate distribution methods for his work, including roadshows, online distribution and, soon, NFTs. To Smith’s credit, the story of his career is that of a man who has always followed his own creative instincts and built his own niche through an undeniably earnest desire to connect with people.
That’s the through-line of Clerk, too, but the flipside of Smith’s success at building a cult audience is that a documentary about his life takes on the form of an almost religious text. Every classic story about Smith is retold here — his nerdy upbringing, his unlikely admission into film school, his breakout at Sundance (Clerks) followed by the studio-financed failure of Mallrats. Every one of his films is given a spotlight so casts and crews can rave about how great Smith is at his job and Smith can deliver self-effacing anecdotes about his work. Even if Smith is a genuinely good guy, it gets tiresome over two hours to watch a parade of faces talk about how awesome a collaborator he was.
I’m a guy who gave a semi-positive review to Jay & Silent Bob Reboot. That makes me pretty unique. The first film I ever, uh, found online because I was too young to watch it in theaters was Clerks II, which still means a lot to me despite its own less-than-stellar reputation. Smith means a lot to me as a director, so it pains me to say that Clerk just feels like too much of the same thing ad nauseum — a long tour through a life that’s already been quite publicly lived. Perhaps those who haven’t followed Smith’s latter-day career will find a lot to learn here. But if you aren’t onboard with him already, why would you want to watch a documentary so lacking in drama and revelation?