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Kevin Smith finds the infantile musings of over-the-hill service people hilarious. Will everyone else?

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The charm of the original was in its observational approach. "Clerks" was like a magic security camera that allowed us to see one small corner of New Jersey, where two convenience store clerks watched movies all day while various kooks, lonelies and petty drug dealers loitered and left. Here were the raw, irreverent musings of real minimum-wage types. "Clerks II" is more mobile, and it's more interested in making a broad comedy out of life at the bottom than showcasing it.

In the new movie, clerks Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) arrive at the Quick Stop convenience store, where they've spent the last decade, only to find it has burned down. Randal left the coffee pot on again. Fast-forward to life at Mooby's. The running joke is that Dante and Randal can only find menial jobs — even in their 30s. Their coworkers are Elias (Trevor Ferhman), a 19-year-old mama's boy who believes in only two things: Jesus and the Transformers, and Becky (Rosario Dawson), their manager, maybe the most fit, attractive fast-food employee this side of a hamburger commercial.

Adding to a growing air of disbelief and paint-by-numbers storytelling, Becky is hopelessly in love with the overweight and underemployed Dante, who is engaged to a svelte blond car-wash heiress from Florida (Jennifer Schwalbach). Also hanging around the establishment are the inevitable Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith), along with various customers; cameos include Jason Lee as a former high-school nemesis turned Internet magnate and Wanda Sykes as a customer disgruntled over Randal's use of the term "porch monkey."

Almost all of "Clerks II" is made up of grade-school humor. I know, that's the point: Dante and Randal got out of the playground, but you can't take the playground out of Dante and Randal. It's a useful excuse for the movie, but not used very well. Smith might have taken another funny look at some characters, or he might have shown us life through their eyes. But most of the time he might as well be reading straight into the camera from a book of tasteless jokes.

In its blind desire to shock and offend, "Clerks II" gets pretty ridiculous. Either unable or unwilling to instill his film with coherency, Smith resorts to putting his characters through their familiar paces: talking about sex, talking about pop culture, talking about wasting their lives and calling each other gay — a lot. In "An Evening With Kevin Smith," a documentary of a college tour he once did, Smith claimed that he had so much gay content in his movies because he was trying to honor a gay relative.

Really? "Clerks II" is filled with the tit-for-tat gay bashing typical of the homophobic ignoramus set. Even if Smith thinks this is a way to honor someone, I doubt his snickering audience will realize it.

It's doubtful, too, that Smith realizes "Clerks II" contributes to the malaise affecting the movies he so heartily rails against. Smith speaks for enthusiastic but uninformed moviegoers everywhere during one scene in which Randal takes on Elias and a customer over which is the better trilogy, "Star Wars" or "Lord of the Rings." Smith is for the former, but what he doesn't realize is that the success of his movies has more in common with the success of the latter.

"Star Wars" doesn't necessarily have a better story going for it; it just happened to get made when some of the men and women of the old Hollywood myth factory were still working. They knew how to make you believe in something, even a galaxy far, far away. What Orson Welles called the fakery, or magic, of movies is largely a lost art. Now the public either doesn't care or has given up waiting for a well-told, convincing story. It'll take the fancy monsters and explosions by themselves. It'll take the fart jokes too. If "Clerks II" is a success, it'll prove the public will take anything. (R) 98 min. * S



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