It can't happen here, not in the land of the free. But it has. Clerks – a movie with no sex, no violence and no harm done to animals – has been rated NC-17 because of talk. That's all it is, hilariously profane chatter between two 22-year-old New Jersey clerks. Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) mans Quick Stop Groceries; his buddy Randal (Jeff Anderson) hassles customers at the porn-heavy video dump next door. Clerks was shot in black and white over 21 days with an all-amateur cast. O'Halloran and Anderson deserve to be stars for the mad-dog humor and unexpected compassion they bring to their roles. The writer and director is Kevin Smith, 23, a first timer who's been dissing the customers as a Quick Stop clerk in Leonardo, N.J., since he was 19. Smith had to squeeze his credit cards and sell his comic-book collection to raise the pitiful $27,575 it took to honor the wit and wisdom of cash-register jockeys everywhere. It was worth it. Clerks is a pisser, the comedy event of the year for the slacker in all of us. Savvy, smartass and screamingly funny, Clerks won praise at Cannes, a prize at Sundance and a pickup from Miramax.
Clerks also won the wrath of the ratings board, which slapped it with a ticket to oblivion in the form of an NC-17. That's the rating that scares off audiences, advertisers, theater chains and video outlets. Lawyer Alan Dershowitz was hired to appeal the decision. There was no verdict yet at press time, but win or lose, the original decision exposes a hypocrisy that needs to be addressed. Though flesh is mutilated in Natural Born Killers and a twat is exposed in Basic Instinct, bankable R ratings are delivered without fuss to these major-studio films. But the independently made Clerks, whose shocks are all verbal, is penalized. Jack Valenti, chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, which runs the sham ratings board, has issued a typically feeble defense: "There are millions of Americans who become hysterical about the kind of bad language that may be de rigueur around dinner tables in the East Side of Manhattan. But in the cities and villages and towns across this free and loving land, it's not that way at all."
What way is it? Valenti's remarks are aimed directly at the right of free speech. For all its raucous sex talk, Clerks hardly qualifies as a dangerous influence. Smith is an astute social chronicler. His focus is on Dante, the conscientious clerk that O'Halloran plays with such whining and winning exactitude. It's Dante's day off, but the boss needs him to fill in at the Quick Stop. In come the customers: smokers, tokers, tabloid skimmers and toilet users all offering advice and complaints. Dopers Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob, slyly played by Smith, hang out, doing deals. Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti), Dante's student girlfriend, nags him about doing something with his life and going back to college. Instead, Dante drags her under the counter and paints her fingernails. Though they talk sex, they don't do it. "Making a male climax isn't at all challenging," Dante tells Veronica. "Insert somewhere close, preferably moist. Thrust. Repeat." It's a bad-news day for Dante. Though Veronica confides that she has slept with only three men – compared with his 12 women – she has "sucked 36 dicks." Dante is nauseated. Later, his old girlfriend Caitlin (Lisa Spoonauer) accidentally fucks a dead man in a badly lit toilet, thinking it's Dante. "This life," he moans. "I'm stuck in a pit working for less than slave wages and dealing with every backward-assed fuck on the planet."
As ever, Dante turns to Randal, the video clerk from hell as played with deadpan comic brilliance by Anderson. Randal hates people; he spits water at annoying customers, sells cigarettes to a 4-year-old girl and grosses out a mother looking for a family movie by reading her such titles as Ass-Worshipping Rim-Jobbers and Men Alone II: The KY Connection. Randal relates only to his buddy Dante. They compare the Star Wars trilogy – Randal finds Dante's preference for Empire over Jedi artistic "blasphemy." Not much happens. The guys organize a game of roof hockey, attend a friend's funeral (Randal tips the casket) and mess up the store in a knockdown fight over the future. But in the course of this day in the life of two clerks, Smith nails the obsessive verbal wrangling of smart, stalled twentysomethings who can't figure out how to get their ideas into motion. Smith credits Richard Linklater's Slacker as inspiration. But Clerks supplies its own subversively witty take on Generation Next. There is nothing dumb about Smith's articulate underachievers. It's the ratings board, out to silence these rudely insightful voices, that isn't thinking.