"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.