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Film review: Clerks

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The subtitle for "Clerks" might be, "A Day in the Life of a Pair of Intelligent Slackers" — "intelligent" being used to distinguish these guys from the likes of such unemployed dunderheads as Wayne and Garth or Bill and Ted.

This black-and-white, no-budget independent film (it cost a mere $26,000 to make) won the Filmmaker's Trophy Award at the Sundance Film Festival, and it's easy to see why. This is perfect Sundance territory, a punk garage movie made by a real-life 23-year-old New Jersey convenience store clerk who developed the picture against all odds (he actually shot it in the store where he has working at the time). The result is a very personal testament to sheer will and talent.

It is also filled with clever verbal exchanges — if you can get past the constant stream of profanity and explicit sexual dialogue.

There is very little story here. The emphasis is on the observances of a pair of droll and witty but aimless twentysomething clerks who work in, respectively, a convenience shop and the video store next door.

The central character is the Quick Stop clerk, Dante Hicks, played by Brian O'Halloran (not that a "Hicks" could ever really be a slacker, of course). As the film opens, Dante is called into work on his day off. Reluctantly, and grumbling all the way, he goes in.

After opening the store, one of his first customers is a guy who makes a minor purchase, then hangs around and tries to talk other customers out of buying cigarettes. He even produces a damaged pair of lungs from his brief-case to help make his case.

Mild-mannered Dante doesn't want to make a fuss, though he is obviously quite put out by the fellow's actions. But when Dante's feisty girlfriend Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) arrives, she throws the guy out, revealing his true, ulterior motives.

This early skit sets the tone for what is to come, wacky comedy driven primarily by offbeat customers who drop into the Quick Stop and the video store. But the next exchange is an early warning sign of how raunchy it gets, as Veronica reveals to Dante — in very graphic terms — her sexual past. Dante is shocked — and so is the audience, which may be the lone point of the scene.

This subplot — Dante's fuming all day about this revelation — is the film's only concession to plot, along with his being hung up on an old girlfriend, a stuck-up social climber named Caitlin (Lisa Spoonauer), who is, according to the local newspaper, about to get married. This bit of information drives him berserk and, needless to say, another day has been ruined.

Meanwhile, Dante's buddy Randal (Jeff Anderson), the video store clerk, comes to work late, as usual, and spends most of his time in the Quick Stop, locking up the video store — much to the frustration of his customers.

Obviously, banter is the key here, and Anderson, Ghigliotti and especially O'Halloran are very good, tossing off lines back and forth that are sometimes quite funny. But most of the supporting players are uneven at best.

The production values are minimal, of course, though that adds to the atmosphere in places. But the film's biggest drawback is its ridiculously raunchy dialogue, as when Veronica and Dante argue about her sex life. But when Veronica appears in the film's final act, the film really goes over the edge with an idiotic sexual encounter in the restroom. Not only is this sequence vulgar and unfunny, it makes no sense.

Still, it is easy to see why this film has caught on with national critics, who love any reason they can find to bash conventional Hollywood. "Clerks" is often witty and bright and contains more clever dialogue than any 10 Hollywood movies. And its unknown lead players, in particular O'Halloran, are quite good.

But the humor is almost exclusively of the insult variety, so that the film often takes on the air of an R-rated TV sitcom. And gets so vulgar that it may prompt as many walkouts as it does cheerleaders.

"Clerks" is rated R for wall-to-wall vulgarity and profanity. There is also some violence and drug use.