Kevin Smith's "Chasing Amy" is a little movie with big truths, a work of such fierce intelligence and emotional honesty that it blows away the competition when it comes to contemporary romantic comedy.
It could be a career-maker for its three stars, Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams and Jason Lee, and for key supporting player Dwight Ewell. It also marks a strong comeback for Smith, who in the end credits of the film actually apologizes for his second feature, "Mallrats." That film caused widespread disappointment among fans of "Clerks," his knockout no-budget debut film, a semi-autobiographical comedy about a pair of New Jersey convenience store employees.
"Chasing Amy" is an unpretentious, modestly budgeted American movie of potentially wide appeal that dares to show its smarts. It could not be a more welcome experience.
That romantic comedies don't come more serious than this gem doesn't mean it isn't as uproarious as it is shattering. Smith, who cameos as the man whose painful experience gives this film its title, has clearly delved deep within himself and confronted every emotion and insight he discovered. "Chasing Amy" is both raunchy and as all-American as apple pie, but it has mature sophistication--especially in regard to fluidity in sexual orientation--that is usually reserved for foreign films.
Affleck's Holden, tall and goateed, and the full-bearded Banky (Lee) are childhood friends and partners in the creation of a cult-hit comic book, "Bluntman and Chronic." (Holden describes it as "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet Vladimir and Estragon.") They work in a nifty office on the charming Victorian main street of Red Bank, N.J. At a comic-book convention in Manhattan's historic Puck Building, they meet Alyssa (Adams), a husky-voiced, sultry comic-book artist.
Alyssa and Holden hit it off from the start, even though she's an upfront lesbian. That doesn't stop them, however, from falling in love, which in turn makes Banky jealous, possibly for reasons he's not prepared to examine.
The harmonics Smith has been able to discover within this situation are altogether amazing: how men can accept one kind of sexual past in a woman but not another; the devastation that disparate levels of sexual experience can bring to a relationship; how crucial candor can be, yet how even the most intelligent and forthright of individuals can smash smack into the heart's all-too-human limitations.
An example of such limitations in empathy is Hooper (Ewell), also a comic-book artist. He is the movie's Eve Arden, quick with the wisecracks. Black as well as gay, he finds himself resenting the trendy acceptability of "lipstick lesbians." (Interestingly, Smith goes for inclusiveness in regard to sexual attractions, contrasting another current New York-based romantic comedy, "The Daytrippers," which uses homosexuality--or bisexuality--merely for shock value.)
Smith alternates between pain and hilarity to a degree that seems groundbreaking for a mainstream movie. But "Chasing Amy," while mainstream, is likely to appeal mainly to the most open-minded moviegoers. Ewell sets the tone for outrageous humor with a speech at the comic-book convention in which he demolishes the "Star Wars" trilogy as racist.
In turn this scene is matched by a diner sequence in which Banky and Alyssa try to top each other with accounts of their sexual exploits. (There's actually not a lot of sex in "Chasing Amy," but the bluntness of its talk about that subject will push the envelope for some moviegoers.)
"Chasing Amy," in which Smith wrote great parts for his actors and then knew how to draw out astonishing, selfless performances from them, concludes his New Jersey trilogy. In being so in touch with himself and with the people he has brought to such intense life, Smith has created a film comedy that has all the hallmarks of a classic.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong graphic sex-related dialogue, language, sexuality and drug content. Times guidelines: The film's sexual candor is blunt, graphic and adult.
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Ben Affleck: Holden
Joey Lauren Adams: Alyssa
Jason Lee: Banky
Dwight Ewell: Hooper
A Miramax Films presentation of a View Askew production. Writer-director Kevin Smith. Producer Scott Mosier. Executive producer John Pierson. Cinematographer David Klein. Editors Smith, Mosier. Costumes Christopher Del Coro. Music David Pirner. Production designer Robert (Ratface) Holtzman. Art director Jim Williams. Set decorator Susannah McCarthy. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
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