Kevin Smith is my friend.

Okay, admittedly, it's a one-sided relationship: He doesn't know who the fuck I am. But still, as an example of those weird, creepy, one-way relationships that we all have with our favorite artists, I feel like he's been my friend for a decade or so. Here's why: For better or worse, of all the filmmakers I can think of, none of them throws so much of themselves up on the screen. The "better" part being Smith's first three films: Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy. "Worse" can be summed up pretty easily by Jersey Girl—though, looking back, plenty of ominous foreshadowing can be found in Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Which brings us to now, and also brings us to my quasi-pal Smith's latest, Clerks II, which hits theaters Friday.

"Saying that I was nervous is putting it mildly," says Jeff Anderson, who played Randal in the original Clerks, when I asked him about reprising his role. (If you want to know what Anderson's like in real life, it's easy: He's pretty much just like Randal—laidback, fast-talking, and funny as shit.) "I absolutely didn't want to do it, just wouldn't do it. And when Kevin first came to me—probably just like everybody who hears there's going to be a sequel—I was wondering why Kevin was going back there, just coming off Jersey Girl. 'What are your intentions? Is your heart in this, or are you just going back to something?'"

Anderson's justified hesitancy aside, that's a bogus question: It's never been uncertain where Kevin Smith's heart is (again, for better or worse). Making 1994's Clerks for under $30,000—a budget garnered largely from family loans and credit cards—Smith helped usher in the early-'90s Sundance Age: a time when indie films stopped being obscure vanity/art projects and became movies that people actually saw, with Clerks in such good company as Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi.

Clerks garnered rave reviews and developed a fanatical following, and it did so because it was smart, fresh, funny, crude, and well written—but just as importantly, it contained enough of the apparently shameless Smith's neuroses, emotions, and traits that one couldn't help but feel a bit of kinship with the then 24-year-old. That continued through Mallrats—which turned into a cult hit despite vicious reviews and disastrous box office returns—and Chasing Amy, which once again landed Smith glowing reviews and commercial viability. He'd squander both on the messy, clunky theological fantasy of Dogma and the self-indulgent slapstick of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, not to mention the embarrassing sap and cheese of Jersey Girl. But Smith's always been one thing: Totally honest and utterly forthcoming, putting so much of himself and his humor in his films that one can fault him for his technique or his products, but not for his motives or efforts.

And, to belatedly get to the point: Clerks II is old-school Kevin Smith. It wipes away the memories of his later films; it reminds viewers why he was so heralded and great and hilarious in the first place. In other words: The smart, fresh, funny, crude, and well-written Clerks II is the best and funniest film Smith's made since the first Clerks.

"It's not really a sequel in the traditional sense of sequels," Brian O'Halloran, who plays Dante, says. (And if you want to know what O'Halloran's like in real life, he's pretty much like Dante—sitting in the same room as O'Halloran and Anderson, it's hard to shake the image that we're bullshitting around a convenience store counter.) "When we first made [Clerks], we were twentysomething, talking about twentysomethings, for twentysomethings—[then], the whole world is ahead of you, and you're struggling with 'What are we going to do? We have our whole lives ahead of us!' Now, we're in our thirties, and it's written by [a thirtysomething], and once again, it's like, 'Oh my god, time is going by—we need to start making decisions here.'"

Indeed, Clerks II finds Dante and Randal still clerkin', though they've relocated to a burger joint, thanks to a disastrous fire at their old job, the Quick Stop convenience store. Dante and Randal are much the same as they were a decade ago: When Dante finds the Quick Stop on fire, he hurriedly calls 911, then sits down, shocked and aghast; Randal's first reaction is, "Shit! Now where am I gonna bring chicks to fuck when my mom's home?!"

Likewise, local drug dealers Jay and Silent Bob (played, of course, by Jason Mewes and Smith) are still artlessly loitering, despite being sobered up and having discovered Christ. ("You should read your Bibles, sirs," Jay advises two clients as he hands them a nickel bag. "You can find all sorts of weird shit in there! Like, did you know that Jesus was a Jew?!") But the film's focus is on Dante and Randal—who have to look at their lives, their jobs, and their slacker tendencies, realizing that if they don't figure out what the fuck to do, they're going to be stuck wrapping cheeseburgers and talking shit to customers for the next 50 years.

While Randal seems content to flip burgers, get in debates about Transformers, and attempt to "take back" the term "porchmonkey"—he'll vociferously argue his points, even with two black customers—Dante feels as if he should be moving on, most likely with his fiancée, though he is pretty tight with their current (and sexy) boss, Becky (Rosario Dawson). And throughout, there's Smith's razor-sharp dialogue, unpredictable twists, emotional undercurrent, and filthy humor.

"We come out swinging," O'Halloran says. "We come out insulting pretty much anyone and anything that you can think of—we go for mineral, vegetable, and animal now."

Indeed, Clerks II is probably the only film to balance heartfelt discussions about existential angst with equally heartfelt debates about the superiority of The Lord of the Rings over Star Wars; likewise, a serious emotional moment happens in the film, even as, not 10 feet away in the background, somebody fucks a donkey.

"Clerks was such an odd and weird movie," Anderson says. "You know, a large portion of Clerks' [success] is owed to when it came out... the whole independent film push. So you're curious about going back and messing with that. I wasn't wholly on board, even after I went back and read the script... Kevin's enthusiasm for doing it was kind of infectious and got me on board. I was thinking, 'Well, he seems to think he can do it, I shouldn't be too worried. It's not going to ruin my acting career or anything. Why am I so paranoid? This guy doesn't seem to be worried at all! Hell, I'll do it! Why not?' I'm sure we're not going to get everybody. Not everybody who was into the first one is going to like it. It would be nice for it to find a new audience, but for me personally, I just want it to not turn off the original fans."

"'Cause that is a fan base you do not want to piss off," O'Halloran throws in. "They'll hound you from project to project."

The difference between a $30,000 production and a $5 million production didn't escape the two, either.

"The shooting process itself was different, and yet the same," O'Halloran says. "Obviously you have more people around to do things, but in terms of budget, it's relatively low in Hollywood terms—$5 million is 'low budget.'"

"It's like the catering budget on Superman," Anderson throws in.

Low budget and questionable motivations aside, the unexpected—but welcome—fact is how well Clerks II turned out, and how it proves that Kevin Smith's still got it where it counts.

"I've been fortunate enough to sit in six screenings that had audiences, and it's been very well received," O'Halloran says. "I mean, it was completely bizarre, the reaction the Cannes audience gave it... when the credits were rolling, and they make the artists stand up, the [applause] just kept going and going and going."

Okay, cool, but c'mon—Cannes has never been the intended audience for anything Clerks. The real testament to the film's success came later.

"We had a test screening in Kansas City where we had two women in their thirties, I believe, leave in a huff—which kind of made Kevin happy," O'Halloran recalls. "He was like, 'Great! I still got it. I can still chase people out of the theater!'"