“Chasing Amy”

A movie review of Kevin Smith's 'Chasing Amy' (starring Ben Affleck and Joey Lauren Adams) by Charles Taylor.

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“Chasing Amy”

Love’s unpredictable puzzles bedevil the
characters in Kevin Smith’s profane, sweet-tempered “Chasing Amy.”

some time in the last few years, romantic comedies became less about giving yourself over to the unpredictability of love than about taking out what amounts to sexual life insurance. The great romantic comedies work like this: Two people meet cute, can’t stand one another, and spend the rest of the movie figuring out what’s obvious to the audience — that they’re made for each other. The lovers fall in love by meeting tests (primarily of trust) that the movie sets up for them. By the time many romantic comedies (“The Lady Eve,” “Tootsie,” “Something Wild”) fade out, there’s no guarantee that the course of love will run smooth, but the lovers are ready to run that risk. In their hearts, they know they’ll never find anyone they like as well as each other.

The message of recent hits like “Sleepless in Seattle” and “While You Were Sleeping” was that before stepping off the cliff of love (i.e. before going to bed with anyone), it’s essential to make certain that your intended mate is the only one for you, implying that thereafter things will be peaches and cream. It’s easy to see how part of that sensibility was a reaction to AIDS. But even more, it’s an example of how Hollywood has echoed the conservative climate of the last 17 years.

That’s why Kevin Smith’s ragged and affecting “Chasing Amy” is such a relief. “Chasing Amy” isn’t going to single-handedly save romantic comedy, but Smith (“Clerks”) has made the only romantic comedy in quite a while that acknowledges, even celebrates, the fact that love and sex are emotional anarchy. One of the most enjoyable things about watching “Chasing Amy” is knowing that it’s going to piss off a lot of people. It could prove to be as bad a date movie for some couples as it might be a real turn-on for others. Anyone with set ideas about sex roles or orientations is likely to get steamed. But if you’ve ever wound up in bed with someone, asking yourself, “How the hell did this happen?” this movie is likely to affirm the wisdom of the ’50s pop music duo Mickey and Sylvia: Love is strange.

The romance here is between two indie comic-book artists, Holden (Ben Affleck) and Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams). The complicating factor is that Alyssa’s gay. The irrationality the movie celebrates comes from Holden’s being in love with her anyway, and then — as Smith ups the ante — from Alyssa falling for Holden after he declares his feelings. That development is likely to send some moviegoers into the same hissy fit that Robert Towne’s wonderful “Personal Best” did 15 years ago. The riot act usually amounts to the complaint that the male filmmaker is claiming lesbianism is reversible or curable.

It’s pretty clear, though, that Smith is getting at how, for better and for worse, the unpredictability of love and sexual attraction upsets our most cherished beliefs about who we think we are. If Alyssa’s falling for Holden bugs some moviegoers, imagine how they’ll feel when Smith tosses their objections right back in their face in a scene where Alyssa tells her gay female friends about her new lover and finds herself regarded as a traitor. Their mirror image is Holden’s best friend and writing partner, Banky (Jason Lee), who swears it’s just a matter of time before Alyssa goes back to women. “When you guys are walking in the mall, and both your heads turn at a really nice-looking chick,” Banky tells him, “it’s going to eat you up inside.” These scenes cannily equate everyone who, no matter what the motive, enforces sexual conformity. Watching them, I thought of a friend who recently got lambasted by a co-worker for using the phrase “sexual preference.” “That’s what right wingers say,” my friend was told, “to imply that there’s a choice.” Obviously, for some of us — straight or gay — there isn’t. But Smith knows that what his characters really have no choice about is who they fall in love with.

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For all the chances it takes, though, “Chasing Amy” is as much of a mess as a movie can be and still be any good. When the characters declare their feelings, they do it in big speeches that baldly lay out the movie’s themes and emotions. And, after taking the risk of making Alyssa and Holden a couple, Smith seems to run out of ideas. It feels right that Holden is bedeviled by idiotic masculine suspicions he’ll have to get past to make the relationship work, but the way he proposes allaying those fears feels false.

If Holden is trying to get beyond his male hang-ups, why does he keep hanging around with Banky, whose remarks about Alyssa cross right over the line and stay there? Holden needs to seem a tad more hopelessly in love, and Affleck seems fully awake in only a handful of scenes. With her baby-doll voice and wide smile, Adams (who at times looks like a young Ellen Barkin) is certainly cute. But she’s not enough of an actress yet to pull off the emotional scenes Smith has written for her (the two are romantically involved). When Alyssa is meant to be upset, Adams goes shrill. And Smith still has a great deal to learn technically. “Chasing Amy” was made on a shoestring budget, and it shows.

But for everything that’s half-baked about “Chasing Amy,” it’s never half-felt. Smith’s characters are the most inventively foul-mouthed in current American movies. When he’s really cooking, he writes dialogue that’s as profane, sweet-tempered and comfortable as the most uninhibited conversations between friends. Smith understands that men prize the unexpected delight of finding a woman who’s not offended by raunch far more than they prize the freedom to talk that way to another guy.

In one terrific bit — a take-off on the scene in “Jaws” where Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss compare wounds — Alyssa and Banky compare sex-induced injuries. And he’s given Affleck and Adams a marvelous bantering dialogue on what constitutes sex, virginity and penetration. You can groan at every misstep in “Chasing Amy” and still walk out excited about the risks it takes. Balls can be a great thing when you’ve got the heart to back them up.

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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