Kevin Smith is an impassioned jokester. The young writer-director double-whammies the audience by filling in his stick figures with thick brush strokes. His first film, Clerks, was a no-budget goof featuring an entire miniature universe of slacker goons, but its main protagonist was a sweetly jerky, lovelorn convenience-store employee who pined for a lost girlfriend and just wanted to do right by everybody.
Mallrats, Smith's next, was trounced by critics but--leaving aside the inept slapstick--had its likable moments. Once again it focused on a lovelorn slacker, and you felt so close to him you got the feeling Smith would have been very happy shucking the slapstick shenanigans and just bearing down on the love angle.
He gets his chance in Chasing Amy. Smith is hip to the emotional through-line in his movies; he seizes what was sweetest about his first two features--the forlorn layabouts yearning to connect and turning themselves into goofballs--and runs with it. The movie's title comes from a monologue delivered by Silent Bob--a recurring character in Smith's films, along with Jason Mewes' stringy, druggie Jay--who mourns the girl who got away. The film is about how much you're willing to give up for love--a tune that has been played many times before, but never with quite this much slacker brio.
The lovestruck wonder in Chasing Amy is Holden (Ben Affleck), who lives with his best friend, Banky (Jason Lee), in central New Jersey. Creators of a popular comic book, Bluntman & Chronic, they have a riffy, laid-back partnership, like college dorm mates who can't quite fathom buttoned-up adulthood. By calling his lead character Holden, Smith is, of course, tipping us off: Like Salinger's Holden Caulfield, Smith's Holden is a self-consciously cynical spotter of phonies who deep down is a romantic--an innocent (in other words, an adolescent).
Holden may have the slouch and the grace of a slacker smoothie, but he's a babe in the woods when love conks him on the head in the person of Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), the comic-book artist he falls for who happens to be gay.
Smith doesn't pretend theirs is a neat commingling. Once enraptured, Holden can't quite believe Alyssa remains sexually unresponsive; he thinks she must be holding out on him. Alyssa, for her part, is flummoxed by her deepening feelings about him. When he finally breaks down and tells her he's in love, she's furious at first. For him to be in love is easy--she thinks--but for her it means completely upending her life.
Alyssa's turmoil probably won't register with certain gays in the audience, who may reject the film as heterosexual propaganda. (In the same way, some gay viewers rejected The Crying Game because the two men didn't get it on.) But Smith isn't playing out the old canard that lesbians are just women who haven't met the right guy; he's dealing with something more subtle and changeable here, and it's a disservice to Alyssa (and the actress who plays her) to slap a label on her.
The deepest joke in the movie is that Holden's life, not Alyssa's, turns out to be the one most upended. The upheaval starts when Banky turns into a hectoring chorus of doom and woe. And, ultimately, what eats away at Holden are revelations about Alyssa's sexual past.
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Chasing Amy turns out to be a movie about a man who has to face up to his own square expectations. Holden is not as hip as he thought he was--or wants to be--and his attempts to salvage his love for Alyssa only make things messier. The film, in a way, is a minitragedy, because Holden and Alyssa both care so much for each other. We want to see them connect, and they can't--not quite. There's too much stuff in the way.
Chasing Amy wouldn't be so likable if the performers weren't. (All three leads appeared in Mallrats.) Director Smith has a clean, nothing-fancy visual style, but he knows how to set off his actors. In his previous features, he had them speak in clipped cadences that made them sound like smart-alecky standups. He's slowed down the pace in Chasing Amy; his players sound recognizably human. Affleck has an easygoing charm that can contort into something shaggier and more unpredictable. Lee is a whiz at showing how Banky is wised up to everything but himself. Dwight Ewell plays swishy black cartoonist Hooper, who puts on an official face of black militancy at comic-book conventions; he's so good at the yin and yang of this character that you're never quite sure which of Hooper's guises is the pretender.
And Adams is remarkably good in the way she makes Alyssa comprehensible in her many modes: unflinching, cowed, slangy, soft-spoken, weathered, newborn. Alyssa seems to be going through her changes at the very moment we experience them. Adams, with her cracked babykins voice, bears a strong resemblance both to Renee Zellweger and to Cameron Diaz--but in terms of talent, she's all her own.
Directed by Kevin Smith; with Ben Affleck, Jason Lee and Joey Lauren Adams.