'Chasing Amy' lays bare the hetero-male mind' (three out of five billiard balls)

It's fascinating how Hollywood has turned romantic comedies into arguably the least pertinent movie genre these days by simply refusing to address the kinds of messy, topsy-turvy issues that actually affect real men and women.

Instead, we inevitably end up with the depressingly middle-aged -- and decidedly retro -- spectacle of Meg Ryan mooning over old Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald standards in fakes like Rob Reiner's "When Harry Met Sally..." (1989) and Nora Ephron's "Sleepless in Seattle" (1993), or Julia Roberts turning tricks to the same music in Garry Marshall's "Pretty Woman" (1990).

So it's encouraging and definitely bracing to encounter the real thing in such fresh-faced new movies as Greg Mottola's current "The Daytrippers" and now Kevin Smith's "Chasing Amy," two films that are "independent" in every sense of the word.

Neither movie is chained to any kind of narrative conformity or big-studio logic or comes with the usual pat answers or resolutions in regard to the ageless discomforts that make up that great human adventure called relationships. And neither one is evasive, using an old son as a cure-all.

"Chasing Amy," made by smith in the same raw, primitive style of his first film, "Clerks" (1994), is especailly in-your-face with an attitude that's as tactless as it is honest. Ostensibly, this is the story of a recognizably arrogant young man who finds himself in love with a lesbian and means to do something about it, even if it means settling for simple friendship.

But the lesbian angle, which Smith uses only as a dramatic hook (and which he eventually abandons), is actually a device for bringing us uncomfortably close to other issues, the kind not generally examined by an industry still dominated by men. "Chasing Amy" is really about male hang-ups -- the sexual insecurities to which no man will admit, the sexual jealousies that usually fuel those insecurities and the reluctance to grow up mentally.

Smith has designed a singular coming-of-age movie about one guy's belated maturation, an event that's sparked by the woman's lesbianism. Spritually, this film is an experimental as it looks because it implies that it's lead character, Holden (Ben Affleck), probably wouldn't have changed if he hadn't met Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams). He'd still be stalled in boyhood limbo, doing guy things with guys just like him and playing games with women who not only put up with it, but are actually flattered -- and are as unformed as he is.

But Alyssa is something different. She comes into Holden's life as both a challege and an affront to his arrested development. Her presence changes the way Holden thinks and his relationships with other guys.

Smith complements ideas with a suitably spare look -- "Chasing Amy" is a good example of "loft film-making" -- and with his usual machine-gun dialogue, which is very modern and can be ambitiously profane. His movie is a lot like "Clerks," but this one unexpectedly manages to accomodate some genuine emotions, as well as a few dramatic issues. Smith is 26 now (and dating Adams) and his movies, which are autobiographical, have clearly evolved with him.

The sexual politics in this new one are as edgy and guy-oriented as those in "Clerks," but they're "male-centric" in a different way. "Chasing Amy is about growth.

Affleck's Holden and Adams' Alyssa are both comic book artists who meet at a professional gathering. For Holden, the attraction is immediate, much to the chagrin of his partner, Banky (Jason Lee), who represents the film's sexist voice. Banky more than just disapproves; he's threatened. And Smith's film is alert enough to recognize that a sexist doesn't discriminate. A guy who will call a woman a "bitch" is the same guy who uses the word "faggot".

Banky has some choice words for Alyssa once he finds out about her sexual orientation, but they're not enough to distract Holden. "Chasing Amy" captures the pleasure of anticipation that comes with every new relationship, the quality that keeps you going and gives you hope. But Holden must deal with Alyssa's past and with the double standard that, while it's OK for guys to be promiscuous, it's another matter for women.

Holden has to learn to deal with his fear of a woman's sexuality.

Affleck, Lee and Adams, all from Smith's 1995 feature, "Mallrats", provide a nice, efficient microcosm of today's hang-out society, with Affleck doing a believable turn as a sort of ragged comic-book poet and Lee telegraphing Banky's own sexual ambiguities.

Adams, meanwhile, who bears a strong resemblance to Renee Zellweger (her co-star in Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused" from 1994), uses her character to approximate the vagaries of modern-day women. Her Alyssa is so much more than meets the eye.

Actually, Smith uses her character, not Holden's, to delve into himself. But like Holden, he makes it clear he isn't willing to fool around anymore.

"Chasing Amy" isn't an easy journey. It isn't always smooth going, but then growing up never is."

written by: Joe Baltake