The best thing I can say about Clerks III is that … well, there really isn’t anything kind to say about Clerks III, which is hopefully Kevin Smith’s swan song in the View Askewinverse. His fictional version of working-class New Jersey was introduced in the first Clerks and informed most of his earlier films, cross-pollinating characters and performers across increasingly absurd slice-of-life comedies released between 1994 and 2006. After Clerks II, Smith claimed to be moving on from these characters. He launched a podcast career and eventually released a smattering of largely awful films. For every Tusk (strange and entertaining) there was a Yoga Hosers (until now, his most unwatchable film).

He returned to the View Askewinverse with 2019’s self-reverential Jay and Silent Bob Reboot. Back then, I wrote that Reboot was a comforting return to familiar faces even if the film itself was not particularly good. Smith has similarly promised a Clerks III for years, but it kept facing creative and financial barriers.

I wish it had never been made. I wish he had stopped.

Fans of Smith’s work seem to be divided on Clerks II, which saw the titular register jockeys face midlife crises and come out better for it. The film opened with the Quick Stop on fire, forcing Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) to become fast-food workers. That adventure ends with them coming to terms with their co-dependent friendship and owning the store to which they have accidentally devoted their lives. It’s an upbeat ending. Smith has said Clerks II was his reflection on his 30s, having found love and purpose and a career doing what he’d always wanted to do. For the 16-year-old version of myself who was just starting out with zero direction, Clerks II was the right movie at the right time. Flaws aside, it’s a story about finding meaning in your working life outside of traditional titles and roles. I needed to hear that at the time. It stuck with me.

This is all preface to say that Clerks III acts on just about every possible narrative opportunity to destroy the ending of Clerks II, to the extent that it seems outright mean-spirited. This isn’t a Star Wars: The Last Jedi situation where, as a fan, I maybe expected something different; I was ready to enjoy some current-era Kevin Smith nostalgia shovelware and not much more. No, from the get-go, it’s clear Smith’s engagement with Clerks and Clerks II while writing Clerks III was as a strip-miner, seeking callbacks rather than content. It’s a grating assault of “remember when …” moments that constantly remind you that you are watching a desperate reminiscence of a once-great artist whose creative impulses abandoned film for new pastures a long time ago. I could handle the bad comedy, incessant callbacks and lousy performances if Clerks III had simply captured the inherent sweetness of Smith’s earlier films or the sense that his characters are regular, unexceptional people with mundane lives that are nonetheless worth sharing because they’re lives being lived. For all his faults, Smith’s best films always felt emotionally real, the fantasies of a man who never forgot what it was like to live at the bottom. This is not one of his best films. It’s probably his worst film.

Clerks III reintroduces Dante and Randal, still working at the Quickstop and still utterly miserable. The world has moved beyond them. Becky (Rosario Dawson), Dante’s wife from the end of Clerks II, died right after that movie while pregnant with their daughter, Grace. He’s never recovered. Randal continues to live in a state of arrested development, aided by nostalgia pop culture like The Mandalorian. Their old coworker Elias (Trevor Fehrman) has grown up and adopted his own tag-along side-kick, with whom he runs a Christian crypto-currency scheme the old clerks can’t possibly understand. One day Randal’s sedentary lifestyle catches up to him in the form of a heart attack that almost kills him. Once released, he deals with the post-traumatic stress by declaring he and Dante are going to make a movie. That movie is basically Clerks.

It’s a premise that invites scrutiny but could work in the hands of a director who wanted anything more than an excuse to reunite with old pals and celebrate the victories of his youth. Smith’s decisions at the top of the film inform the entire endeavor. The two men reconciled at the end of Clerks II, admitting what they meant to each other; that’s gone, here. Neurotic Dante had found the love of his life and moved into adulthood on his terms; that’s also gone here. Randal finally found a way to express his love for his friend without resorting to nastiness or sarcasm, but now he’s a more merciless asshole than ever before. For whatever reason, Smith seems ashamed of the upbeat nature of his original sequel and determined to squander the growth his characters experienced. It’s outright bizarre. 

Smith’s plot about re-creating Clerks extends to the production of Clerks III. Gone is the “lessons learned” filmmaking of the previous film, which felt like merging his DIY characters with a professional craftsmanship honed over a decade and a half of bigger films. Whether due to budget or simply creative impulse, Clerks III tries to recapture that homemade, spontaneous spirit — an impossible task. It ends up feeling like the hundreds of knock-off imitations produced across college campuses each year by a couple of guys who think they can emulate Smith’s iconic dialogue. Pop culture-laden conversation only gets you so far, and it’s an annoyance here. Part of the issue is that everyone but Anderson (reportedly the hold-out from previous iterations of this sequel) is awful. It has the energy of a film made by a group of performers doing a friend a solid, which might be true of Clerks, but that film’s charm is that it never felt that way.

If Clerks and Clerks II were fundamentally driven by Smith reflecting on his own life in his 20s and 30s, it’s fair to say Clerks III is informed by his 50s — a creative decade defined by his massive heart attack in 2018. Smith was a famously large man who lived an unhealthy lifestyle. It caught up with him. It almost killed him. In the years since, he’s been outspoken about healthier lifestyles and his traumatic experience. Unexpected mortality drives Clerks III but never in a way that feels thoughtful or precise. “This happened to me, so it will happen to them” seems to be the plot kernel of this particular story. A seed that bore rotten fruit. This is a long review, but I haven’t and will not spoil the ending, except to say the only emotion it left me with was confusion. “Why this story?” I find myself wondering this weeks later. I wish I hadn’t watched it.

Maybe this review comes across as higher-level criticism of someone who expects too much from the same Kevin Smith who, just a half-decade ago, made Yoga Hosers — a film so rancid it’s indescribable. Maybe that’s a fair critique of my own critical lens. Still, beyond all expectations, the problem with Clerks III is that it simply isn’t funny. It isn’t fun. And it doesn’t feel honest. By all indication, it’s the final film Smith will make with these characters. We should be so lucky.

Clerks III will be shown theatrically Sept. 13-18 as part of the Fathom Events series. Check your local listings for showtimes.