The jokes are there, but will viewers reject Smith's stabs at maturity
In a black-and-white prologue, we see how Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) ended their careers as convenience store clerks before flash-forwarding a decade to their ongoing employment at Kevin Smith's favorite fictional fast food joint Mooby's, which also provides a safe outdoor haven for the clean-and-sober Jay (Jason Mewes) and his hetero-life partner Silent Bob (Kevin Smith). Enough time has passed for Dante to feel dissatisfaction with his life and he's determined to change his fortunes by marrying the domineering Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach) and planning a move to Florida. For his part, Randal is just content taunting customers and insulting goofy young colleague Elias (welcome addition Trevor Fehrman). Randal can't convince Dante to stick around, but maybe sexy Mooby's manager Becky (Rosario Dawson) can do the job.
News Flash -- Kevin Smith's strength as a filmmaker lies in his dialogue and the ability to convey crucial character information through rambling digressions about "Lord of the Rings," "Transformers" and the differences between Anne Frank and Helen Keller. One film after another, Smith keeps finding a different niche sexual behavior to make Middle America blush and he delivers here with mainstream cinema's longest-ever debate on the manners of going ass-to-mouth, as well as with the description of the off-screen character Pillow Pants who's sure to have some audiences in tears. There's degrading activity aplenty, including a donkey show, a "Silence of the Lambs" dance reenactment by Jay and a cameo from Ben Affleck, who looks like he rolled out of bed, filmed for five minutes and then went back home to Jennifer Garner.
A Second News Flash -- plot mechanics have never been Smith's gift. He knows the payoffs he wants to reach, but sometimes getting there is a struggle. A lively Bollywood-style musical number is a good scene, for example, but in order to get there, Smith relies on a punishing conversation between Dante and Becky about how embarrassed he is that he doesn't know how to dance. As good as Dawson is, in fact, Smith gives her several awful speeches about marriage that are only there to provide an obstacle to Dante and Becky finding happiness. There are just several points at which characters find themselves in situations without any rational explanation of how they got there.
Smith has admitted his own struggles with conveying earnestness in his films, succeeding impressively in "Chasing Amy," but largely failing with "Jersey Girl." It's all character dependent. I was surprised by how much I bought Randal's final act emotional epiphanies, which cleared up my concerns about Anderson's acting range. O'Halloran's mopiness, though, gets dull and occasionally dampens the comedy.
Although it's as funny as any movie this summer, "Clerks II" has to struggle to achieve the level of universality that the original "Clerks" seemed to hit effortlessly. Although it loses its way for long spells, most fans are likely only to remember the punchlines.