Any New Jerseyan worth their salt will proudly proclaim their unrelenting adoration of Kevin Smith movies. But even the most committed Smith stan might still find moments of critical stagnancy in Clerk, documentarian Malcolm Ingram’s praising portrait of the indie filmmaker turned Jersey icon. Though ostensibly serving as a chronological survey of Smith’s cinematic career, the documentary sporadically touches upon other notable aspects of Smith’s life: His marriage, his daughter-turned-muse, long-time friendship with actor Jason Mewes, and even the massive heart attack which threatened his life in 2018. Yet when it comes to examining less appealing topics—namely Mewes’ long-time addiction and Smith’s direct involvement in his recovery—the film is totally uninterested in acknowledging their impact on the director’s life. While it’s a totally lighthearted and heartwarming tribute, it’s also friendly fluff that can’t see past its own biases.
Logically beginning with 1994’s Clerks and concluding with the 2019 Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, the documentary presents each entry in Smith’s filmography alongside commentary from the director on the lessons he gleaned from their production and critical reception. It also features talking head interviews with a slew of his frequent or one-off collaborators, who recall the scope of their own involvement in these films. It’s fairly conventional as far as documentary profiles go, but it somehow feels disjointed in its approach. Perhaps this is due to the director’s own previously fractured relationship with the very focus of his film. Smith executive produced Ingram’s first two features, which were also released via his production company View Askew Productions. Yet in a 2013 interview with The Hollywood Reporter for his SXSW-premiering documentary Continental, Ingram reveals that he and Smith experienced a personal fallout after they worked together on Smith’s 2011 film Red State. “I have Kevin to thank for my entire career,” he says. “But relationships run their course.” Even more heated is how he concludes the interview: “I love him like you’d love a brother. And I hate him like you could only hate a brother.”
Clearly, Smith and Ingram are no longer on sour terms. But Clerk is still entirely influenced by their relationship—past and present—particularly when it comes to the gracious and uncomplicated depiction of Smith. Perhaps this is meant as a manifestation of their rekindling: Serving as a nearly two-hour testament of the director’s enduring appeal and cultural legacy, it effectively communicates how positively Ingram sees Smith. Despite this palpable sense of cheery camaraderie between Ingram and Smith, this is rarely true of the film’s other subjects. Very few of the people interviewed actually interact with Smith, save for casual statements of admiration. They all sit in various chairs across various locations, with Ben Affleck in particular occupying a puzzling liminal space in a windowless mess hall. Though it makes perfect sense for certain far-flung interviewees to be presented in this way, it’s odd that other, closer contemporaries of Smith get the same distant treatment. Particularly when considering his wife, Jennifer Schwalbach Smith, and their daughter, Harley Quinn, one wonders why the seemingly happy family aren’t interviewed in the same space together. Even Jason Mewes, Smith’s best friend, is hardly ever in the same frame as him, instead conducting his interview from the comfort of a pink-accented computer chair. The only exceptions are Smith’s parents—who he accompanies by way of his presence in his childhood home—and Scott Mosier, who co-hosts SModcast with Smith.
If there is one concept that Clerk is preoccupied with, it’s that of Kevin Smith being a man who embeds his friendships into the fabric of his career. His directorial ethos of “making movies with my friends” is endearing enough, but its constant repetition effectively renders it hollow and meaningless. For example, his professed motivation behind making Clerks? The opportunity to shoot a movie with his friends. What did experiencing his first flop inspire him to do? Continue making movies with his friends. After his heart attack, what was Smith’s biggest takeaway? To never stop making movies with his friends. In all honesty, it’s an adorable and heartening declaration to reiterate, but there simply must be something deeper to Smith’s moviemaking motivation than wavering social ties.
Clerk is guaranteed entertainment for those who are already secure fans of Kevin Smith’s work. However, for those searching for something deeper than surface-level (and sometimes stoned) conversations with disinterested, disembodied talking heads, Ingram’s latest just doesn’t deliver. Though Smith’s charisma and charm are appreciable, it simply adds an artificial sense of pleasantness by way of steering clear of thornier issues. The end result feels less like a documentary film and more like a devotional favor.
Director: Malcolm Ingram
Stars: Kevin Smith, Jason Mewes, Ben Affleck, Brian O’Halloran, Richard Linklater, Harley Quinn Smith, Jennifer Schwalbach Smith
Release Date: November 19, 2021 (Magnolia Pictures)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste, Blood Knife and Filmmaker magazines, among others. Find her on Twitter.