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Maybe, in the 12 years since Kevin Smith’s Clerks came out, we as viewers have become more accustomed to seeing the film’s distinguishing characteristics combined onscreen: pop-culture obsessions, filthy words, and even filthier scenarios. Smith, naturally, became his own imitator, continuing to examine his fixations in his subsequent movies. But even television has done them, in series such as Strangers With Candy, Crank Yankers, and the always-topical, always-raunchy South Park. If we aren’t suitably and giddily shocked by the films and shows that seem to exist solely for this purpose, it’s not our fault, is it?

Maybe it’s the culture’s fault. It couldn’t possibly be Smith’s—right? Not the guy who’s the hero of potty-mouthed, life-beaten geeks everywhere. But how about the guy who allowed the long-announced Clerks II to be publicized with a poster that features Rosario Dawson placed saucily front and center, displacing the potty-mouthed, life-beaten geeks who were Smith’s heroes in the original? Sure, she might have earned some fanboy cred in Sin City—but that black-and-white bundle of debauchery is worlds and dollars away from Smith’s color-free $27,000 debut.

II picks up 10 character years after its 1994 predecessor. Best buds and nearly lovable Jersey losers Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) are no longer working at the Quick Stop and RST Video because of a fire, shown in an inspired opening scene that makes the transition from black and white to color. They begin slacking instead at Mooby’s, an Everychain fast-food joint. Then Dante decides to quit so he can move to Florida with his well-off fiancée, Emma (Smith’s wife, Jennifer Schwalbach, who’s obviously hopped on the show-your-skeleton train). There, he’ll run his father-in-law’s car wash. But he’s still a little torn between staying in Jersey or starting a grown-up life. And it doesn’t help that he gets all goo-goo-eyed around his boss, Becky (Dawson), and even—ugh—paints her toenails in her office.

Will he stay or will he go? Smith has been vocal about wanting to present the dilemmas facing the increasing population of adolescents in their 30s, just as the first Clerks mirrored the lives of college-aged slackers who might bitch about their dead-end jobs but deep down love how punching a clock postpones the grown-up world. The main theme here is deciding whether to do what you love or to do what others expect you to love, and as the movie nears the end of its 98 minutes, things get pretty touching. With the clock ticking down on Dante’s last day, Randal even makes a heartfelt speech. Consider yourself warned.

But given that mushiness is not what Clerks was all about—not to mention the cred-flogging Smith received the last time he ventured into heartfelt territory, with Jersey Girl (a movie he thanks in II’s closing credits for teaching him how to “take it up the ass”)—the majority of the sequel tries hard to recapture the original’s demimonde. Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) are back, though they’re now 12-steppers. (When a buyer asks Jay if he’s tempted to get high, he responds in his unchanged stoner voice, “Not with the power of Jesus Christ on my side!”) Dante is still burdened by the weight of responsibility as Randal constantly pulls him away from his duties. And, of course, there are still heated movie debates, which are the film’s funniest scenes: Randal goes off on The Lord of the Rings, mimicking the action in the trilogy and exasperatedly letting it be known that “there’s only one Return, and that’s of the Jedi!”

Too bad, then, that most of Clerks II’s naughty bits seem as contrived as Clerks’ seemed natural. There are some tired screw-the-customers ideas apparently borrowed from Waiting…, a running gag on racial slurs, and one disgusting bachelor-party send-off featuring a gay-themed “donkey show.” (OK, the term “interspecies erotica” is kinda funny.) Worse, though, is the head-scratching filler: a seemingly unending go-kart scene, an attempt by Becky to teach Dante how to dance—on the roof, à la the original’s hockey game. Twelve years ago, Randal and Dante would have been appalled.

Smith might get something of a pass for allowing Dawson a chance to sex things up, but the choreographed, seemingly townwide number that follows is arguably more sickening than the interspecies stage show. The idea, of course, is that it’s supposed to be sickening—an announcement that, if Kevin Smith is going to go squishy on us again, this time he’s also going to make fun of himself for it. It’s an awkward moment typical of an awkward movie—one that finds its director doing, yes, what he loves, but obviously a little less than he used to.

If Smith should get serious already, then perhaps M. Night Shyamalan should turn to comedy. The writer, director, and one-time King of Twist now gives us Lady in the Water, his follow-up to 2004’s disastrous The Village. Lady might not redeem him: It’s not nearly as bad as The Village, nor quite as convoluted as Unbreakable. It’s almost in the same ballpark—let’s say in the satellite parking lot—as Signs. And compared to The Sixth Sense? This release further suggests that Shyamalan’s simple, finely crafted breakout film will one day mark him as a one-hit wonder.

However, Lady in the Water is funny as hell. Paul Giamatti stars as Cleveland, the stuttering, easily freaked super of an apartment building that’s quite realistically filled with a few oddballs. Bob Balaban is—also dead-on—a terse, cynical film critic who, barely provoked, bitches that there’s no originality in cinema anymore. (His response to a polite query about his latest press screening: “Sucked….Why do people in movies always talk in the rain?”) Shyamalan, who has a significant part here, is a writer who has a slightly antagonistic relationship with his roommate/sister (Sarita Choudhury). Even if the auteur’s acting remains, at this point, something of an indulgence, he proves here that he can write a script that’s consistently humorous without being sitcom-y and that if he ever gives up directing entirely, he might be able to find work as a straight man.

The plot is built around an otherworldly-looking woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) who seems to have been living in the building’s pool. Cleveland catches a glimpse of her one night and later wakes up to find her standing next to his bed. She’s not a talker, this one—perhaps Shyamalan learned his lesson after her awful performance as the blind woman in The Village—but Cleveland manages to find out that her name is Story and that she comes from “the Blue World.” Crude children’s drawings at the beginning of the film explain that there are a people who live in the water, and that occasionally one of them is sent to land because humans could be a great species, if only they didn’t lack the light and—oh, you’ve heard it before.

The rest of the film isn’t so familiar: The water lady is a “narf,” a character in a bedtime story (one that Shyamalan has told his kids). Cleveland and everyone else are characters in the story, too, and their goal is to get the stringy-haired sea chick back home. But there are complications: There are evil monkeys in the woods that surround the apartment building, along with flat, grass-covered creatures who occasionally morph into wolflike beasties that would prefer to eat a narf alive than let her return to the water. There’s also a puzzle that needs to be put together before Story can leave, involving discovering which people in the complex have which roles—the Protector, the Healer, the Guild—and then getting them together to, uh, help her cross to the other side or something. Naturally, everyone, from a group of stoners to a reclusive, lonely man, enthusiastically gets in on the project.

There are no scares and hardly any thrills in Lady in the Water, though cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who shot Takashi Miike’s Three…Extremes and Zhang Yimou’s Hero, imbues scene after scene with a menacing Halloween atmosphere. The plot, though absurdly complicated and dippily James Campbell–esque, is exotic enough to hold your attention, and the dialogue is far superior to the stilted conversation in The Village. If you let its funnier lines take you off guard, buy into Shyamalan’s recurrent idea that we’re all part of some obscure but comprehensible cosmic plan, and don’t believe that flat, grass-covered creatures who occasionally morph into wolflike beasties are utterly ridiculous in themselves, you might be sufficiently lulled into thinking it’s all good enough. But here’s the Shyamalan-esque twist: Once you leave the theater and think about it for two seconds, you’ll know it’s not. CP