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CLERKS II Even as the lone wolf reviewer who considers Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back a guilty pleasure of the most shameless order, it saddens me that I can't offer Kevin Smith's latest Jersey hurl similar props. The sequel to the 1994 film that placed Smith on the indie map in the first place, Clerks II is pretty much what you'd expect from this often crude, often insightful filmmaker, only with too much of the former and not enough of the latter. Twelve years down the road, wishy-washy Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and foul-mouthed Randal (Jeff Anderson) are still the clerks at the Quick Stop convenience store -- at least until it burns down at the start of this film. The pair then take jobs flipping burgers for the Mooby's fast food chain (also seen in Dogma), and a year down the road finds Dante planning to marry his dominant girlfriend (Jennifer Schwalbach) and move to Florida to work for her dad. Randal isn't happy that his buddy will be abandoning him; neither is Becky (Rosario Dawson, quite delightful here), the Mooby's manager who enjoys her easygoing relationship with Dante. That's more than enough plot, since with Smith, the wordplay's the thing. There's a lengthy argument between film geeks from the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings camps, a lengthy chat on the grossness of a particular sex act, and a lengthy discussion on whether Dante should be content with his present existence or whether it's really necessary for him to leave the Jersey turf he's always called home and rebuild his life from scratch. The verbal exchanges aren't as clever as in past Smith flicks, and while the romance and the raunch coexisted easily in the wonderful Chasing Amy (still his best film), here they're often at odds: It's already pushing it that Smith has two characters make their declarations of love at a site where a hairy brute plans to both blow and screw a donkey, but Smith upsets the balance by allowing the scene to continue for an eternity. Even those reliable cutups Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) aren't allowed to live up to their potential. **

STRANGERS WITH CANDY A riff on the popular (if short-lived) Comedy Central show of the same name, Strangers With Candy is a mess as a movie: crudely shot, flatly staged and lazily plotted. Even the laughs -- and there are a handful of notable ones -- don't always come easily. Yet when compared to recent sourballs like You, Me and Dupree and Little Man, this is bleedin' Young Frankenstein. The key to its success -- at least, whatever success it can muster -- is the manic work of Amy Sedaris, who plays 40-something junkie-whore Jerri Blank. Recently released from prison -- and learning that her dear daddy (Dan Hedaya) has been in a coma for decades -- Jerri decides to straighten out her life by picking up where she left off when she ran away from home as a teenager. In other words, she goes back to high school, where her odd (to say the least) appearance and habits earn her the scorn of the popular kids and relegates her to also-ran status along with the typical assemblage of geeks (including the requisite pretty girl made to look ungainly, winningly played here by Maria Thayer). The central plot thrust -- Jerri hopes to win a science competition -- is so formulaic that even as spoof material, it never jibes with the quirkiness that defines the rest of the picture. But that won't matter to Sedaris devotees, who will be happy enough to see the comedienne tackling her signature role one more time. Strangers With Candy isn't subtle -- for instance, the school's black principal (Gregory Hollimon, like Thayer a series regular) is called Principal Blackman -- and the crudity runs rampant. But while it doesn't appear to have much going for it, it's admittedly one of the few recent gross-out comedies that manages to serve up some nyuks to go along with the yucks. **1/2

Current Releases

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA Meryl Streep deserves all the accolades she can stomach for her poison-dipped performance in this satisfying screen version of Lauren Weisberger's best-selling novel. As Miranda Priestley, the ice-cold and rock-hard editor of the fashion magazine Runway, Streep delivers a terrific comic performance, as rich as the ones she gave in Postcards from the Edge and the otherwise unwatchable She-Devil. But let's not undervalue the contribution of Anne Hathaway (Brokeback Mountain), who's just fine as Andy Sachs, a college grad whose cluelessness about the fashion industry proves to be a drawback in her stint as Miranda's worked-to-the-bone assistant. (Stanley Tucci and Emily Blunt, as Andy's more seasoned and more cynical coworkers, likewise deserve kudos.) The film's peeks into the fashion world are amusing, and the script makes some salient points about the lengths to which a person will allow themselves to be humiliated simply to hold onto a job. Once the focus turns to Andy's crisis of conscience, the picture loses some of its bite. But not Meryl, whose ferocious work continues to take a sizable chunk out of the couture culture. ***

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