In 2018, filmmaker, writer, podcast impresario, and master of the profane speaking engagement Kevin Smith suffered a massive heart attack. He survived. One could not blame you for assuming otherwise, however, given the tone of Clerk a documentary dedicated to Smith’s still very active and lucrative career.
A significant reason for this tone of honoring no doubt comes from the project’s director Malcolm Ingram. Smith has produced several of Ingram’s films—fictional and documentary—over the years. Clerk does cite one such film—Small Town Gay Bar—as Smith produced. However, it oddly does so during the section about the podcasts made possible by Smith’s support. Moreover, it never links Bar to Ingram by name, only briefly showing an image of its poster.
This isn’t a scandal. Documentaries are under no obligation to be journalistic, especially one of this variety. Still, it’s interesting that the doc makes no effort to link Smith and Ingram, who is, in some ways, a protégé. That knowledge would clarify that this is less a serious look at Smith’s life and career and more of a love letter to a friend.
Judged by that criterion, it’s a pretty fun endeavor. To admit my personal connections, Smith and his films—particularly those up to Red State—fit snugly into the fabric of my life. Friendships solidified while seeing them, in-jokes born because of them, external events inextricably linked to them.
Listening to Smith riff on his life and creative endeavors is a bit like revisiting an old friend. The kind that you grew away from as your interests diverged but with whom you still share a quick and easy rapport. The kind that you can while away a few hours with and briefly think, “maybe we should start hanging out all the time again.”
The multi-hyphenate has long presented as a remarkably vulnerable and open-hearted man. He might not tell you everything, but what he does say is honest. Certainly a lot more honest than you can expect of most in the entertainment industry.
As a result, the doc doesn’t so much present an unseen side of Smith. He’s more thoughtful than in his live shows and perhaps a bit less inclined to jump for the joke as he is in either of his autobiographic books “My Boring Ass Life,” and “Tough Sh*t” (censoring his). But there won’t be anything unexpected here for those who have gotten to “know” Smith, the public figure.
The cavalcade of friends, many some degree of famous, similarly feel familiar in largely positive ways. The one exception is Scott Mosier, the man who produced the first eight Kevin Smith films as well as Good Will Hunting. Mosier ends up being the covert story of Clerk., moving from Smith’s right-hand man—Kevin call him his “battery.”—to someone pursuing his own interests. As with anything in the movie, Clerk. never goes especially deep on Mosier’s career, but the brief glimpses of it are intriguing.
He goes from a film school student hoping to become a filmmaker himself, to the guy who repeatedly got Smith’s films across the finish line despite wildly divergent budgets and casts, to the director behind the 2018 animated adaptation of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.
Shallowness is a factor throughout the film. By pursuing breadth over width, we see intriguing issues often raised but rarely considered deeply. How much has Smith’s daily pot use affected his life? Maybe it saved his life? Did it destroy his filmmaking career? Perhaps both? Possibly neither? Working on Cop Out led to some dark times. How dark? What did Smith do? Who can say?
Other items that are publicly part of Smith’s life and career are never touched on. For example, we know Smith struggled with a few high-profile actors. These frustrations go without mentioning, never mind examination. Given how much the doc emphasizes Smith’s “Make Movies with Friends” ethos, discussing such frictions wouldn’t be idle gossip. Instead, it would be an opportunity to explore the limits of his philosophy and, perhaps, how he evolved in response.
His good friend and frequent collaborator Jason Mewes’s substance struggle also fail a mention. That’s despite how hard Smith fought for his friend. Not to mention the possible fertile landscape of what it is like to develop a love of marijuana as your friend is embarking on a life of sobriety.
Documentaries never have to investigate anything they don’t want to, of course. The Clerk we get is fun and interesting. It has that signature filthy-mouthed heart that most Smith projects do. It also has the signs of fandom, of not giving us a complete picture. That’s not a “wrong” choice, but it may leave nonfans wondering, “Why Kevin? Why now? Why eulogize a man who clearly has plenty left to say?”