"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."

-- The Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians 13: 11

Jerky, grainy black-and-white, the ugly grind of a low-paying job, the zombie-like stumble through a life unlived: Clerks II opens exactly like 1994's Clerks did, with nervous and harried counterworker Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) heading to the Quick Stop for another day. In Clerks, Dante found the shutter's locks jammed with gum -- a story point springing out of the economic reality that Smith shot the film in his real neighborhood variety store after-hours. In Clerks II ... well, the good news is that the shutters aren't locked (in no small part thanks to Smith's ability to command bigger budgets); the bad news is that years later, Dante is still slumping in to open the same damn shutters.

There's worse news for Dante -- a career change (or, rather, lack-of-career change) that's put him and his gum-snapping, blithely obnoxious best friend Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) under the same roof of employment, as well as romantic complication, existential angst and a peer group made of equal parts dimwits and dickheads. All of this is bad news for Dante, but its good news for us, as viewers, insofar as Clerks II is the best film Kevin Smith's made in quite some time, in part because it's got a certain sense of wistfulness and hope to it, along with the dick jokes. Clerks II is actually heartwarming -- or, rather, as heartwarming as any film that includes the phrase 'donkey show' can be.

And we live in an era where you can have a heartwarming film include the phrase 'donkey show' -- in no small part thanks to Clerks, which clumsily-yet-firmly paved the way for a wave of appealing, appalling comedies at the box office: From There's Something About Mary to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, films with foul mouths and big hearts have become more and more possible. Clerks II may occasionally be rankly sentimental -- no more so than in Smith's endless, near-unendurable end credit acknowledgments -- but it has more than a spoonful of medicine to help the sugar go down. Dante's getting ready to go West, young man, with his fiancée Emma (Jennifer Swallbach), which will mean abandoning Randal to his servitude at Mooby's -- the burger franchise they now both work at -- and also leaving behind Becky (Rosario Dawson), his manager and friend. Becky, it's soon established, is just one of the guys, much as Diaz was just one of the guys in There's Something About Mary -- which is to say, tenuously spun out of one-half charisma and one-half male fantasy. But then again, as Becky rattles off, in those rattling, hypnotic Smith cadences, a socio-biological evolutionary basis for buck-wild promiscuity, you can't help but smile at the goofiness of it all; you can't help but smile at the goofiness of the whole film, in fact.

Without either love or prospects, Randal has devoted himself to his prime passion in life: Harassing everyone around him with a blunt-instrument tongue. Randal delights in offending strangers (and is so used to doing so, he often doesn't realize he's doing it, as in a scene where he dimly, blithely is incapable of parsing the language of racism), but his latest nemesis is nerdy, gentle fellow counter-worker Elias (Trevor Fehrman), who loves Jesus and bad fantasy with the same idiotic, wholehearted fervor. (Elias, explaining his recent theological discussion about The Transformers: " ... It turns out cars and trucks that turn into robots aren't terribly blasphemous. ..." ) Randal is of course lashing out, terrified by the prospect of a Dante-less life. ...

At one point in Clerks II, a high school classmate customer (Jason Lee, mustached and swaggering) mocks the twosome: "Thirty-two and you're still flippin' burgers? " In an early MovieCityNews.com blog post linking to the Clerks II unrated trailer, David Poland asked Smith a similarly-themed question: "35 and You're Flippin' 'Ass To Mouth' Jokes and Featuring Rosario Bouncin' in a Tank Top?" It's a legitimate question, and one Smith himself seems to be struggling with: Should he go for the laugh, or the heart?

The better question Smith should have been struggling with is "Does the Donkey Show sequence go on too long?" Yes, it does -- but there's also evidence that Smith is growing as a storyteller, from a clumsily exuberant dance number to the occasional real moment of connection between Randal and Dante as characters, and not just between Anderson and O'Halloran as actors. (I'm still convinced that Smith would do himself a serious service by a) directing a script that he did not write and b) writing a script for someone else to direct -- I'm curious about whether his talents would wither or bloom outside of the sealed hothouse-cage of his writing/directing career.) And all the stuff that Smith's been mining for years -- sex, pop culture, sex, Christianity, sex, drug use, pop culture and, yes, sex -- gets dragged up to the script, but there are bright glimmers in the ore itself.

So Smth is growing as a storyteller, but not outside the realm of where he's been before --and part of Clerks II's appeal is that it manages to celebrate accepted responsibility and arrested development. Much like his protagonists, Smith has taken the long way 'round to return where he started, but that's not the same thing as having stayed in one place. Smith and Smith alone knows what his next step will be -- Movies outside his 'Askewniverse' of characters? Lecture tours? Crying himself to sleep on a big, greasy pile of collectibles and t-shirt money? Turn into the Howard Hughes of the internet? -- or if he decides to put away childish things. But with Clerks II, Smith doesn't just demonstrate and celebrate where he started: For the first time in a long time, he makes us curious about where he's headed next.

(For Cinematical's interview with Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson, click here.)