The third time, as they say, is the charm. Following an amazing debut (Clerks) and an unmitigated bomb (Mallrats), writer-director, wunderkind Kevin Smith is back on top. With Chasing Amy, Smith returns to Miramax and his low budget roots (it cost around $250,000), and in the process, silences his critics with a moving comedic romance.

Chasing Amy's nifty premise: How does one half of a couple in love handle the news that the other has a lot more sexual experience? That's the real theme. Don't be fooled by the inciting sounding official plot: How can a guy fall in love with a devout lesbian? That's just the hook to get you in.

For a director who's still well shy of thirty, Smith has already had some pretty tumultuous ups and downs. Three years ago Clerks won film festival awards around the world and took the film world by storm, at one point garnishing forty-two positive reviews in a row. With his rapid fire dialog and mixture of the insightful and the profane, Smith brought dignity to a generation of underachievers who came across as fresh, funny, wise and likable.

Then came the big, bad studio, the lure of big bucks, and Mallrats. The suits liked it. The test audiences loved it. Smith was poised to make the big bucks. Mallrats was released to tepid box office (less than two million) and savage reviews. Smith was stunned. The truth is that this little ode to the sex comedies of the '80s that Smith found so memorable worked in fits and starts (maybe it's best viewed on a laser disc, where you can search and skip). When he kept it small and introspective, he was on safe ground: Clerks in a mall.

Unfortunately the slapstick and the overacting of the adults (Michael Rooker in particular, who should have been reigned in), coupled with some obnoxious comedic overkill (the "stink palm" and "poop pretzel" gags were a bust), made people brand Mallrats a stinkeroo of the lowest order. But to dismiss it outright is overkill and ignores some funny gags and the real find, skate boarder turned actor, Jason Lee.

A director spurned, Smith went back to his typewriter and purposely wrote something small and from the heart. While shooting Mallrats, he'd met actress Joey Lauren Adams. Things started going well and then, well there were some problems. Smith had his inspiration...

Chasing Amy is the story of underground comic artist Holden McNeil (played rather blandly by Ben Affleck), who's about to learn some tough life lessons. (Smith likes the two guy dynamic: one straight man, the other wise ass. As bland Smith leads go, Affleck's better than Jason London, the bland lead in Mallrats, but not nearly as interesting or good as Brain O'Halloran was in Clerks.) Holden is moderately successful at writing his cult comic Bluntman and Chronic, and on the verge of hitting the big time. Enter Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams). The two immediately hit it off. Only one problem: She's already got a steady. And it's a girl.

For the first thirty minutes or so, Smith peppers the dialog with his trademark rapid fire witticisms and hilarious pop references. The highlight is a tirade about scars earned while performing oral sex that's orchestrated as a tribute to the drunken scar scene in Jaws. But after about the third Star Wars reference, you get a little uneasy: This seems to be headed into Mallrats territory. Lee's scenes seem to all end in yelling and you wish he'd just settle down. Then whammo, Smith pulls the big surprise. The film turns into a genuinely heartfelt and bittersweet romance.

Adams and Affleck work well together and give off a nice glow. One early courting bit pays homage to the Marlon Brando/Eva Marie Saint swing set scene from On the Waterfront and the couple are well aided by Smith's earnest dialog. Jettisoning the laugh-a-minute trademark one liners, Smith demonstrates a maturity of dialog and drama Clerks and Mallrats only hinted at. Adams, who'd shown promise in past films like Dazed and Confused and TV's now defunct Second Noah, knows a good part when she see it and milks it for all its worth with. Alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, not only does she get to romance both sexes, she also gets three showcase crying scenes.

Jason Lee, the smart ass co-lead from Mallrats, returns as Affleck's wise-assed roommate Banky and plays a comical devil's advocate role much like Bill Murray did in Tootsie. Lee gets most of the big laughs, as he now sports a beard and a more relaxed demeanor (in the second half of the film). It's like he appreciates not having to carry the whole picture. When the film focuses on these three actors,Amy soars. It's only when peripheral characters are allowed to go on for too long, (like the black, gay character played too broadly by Dwight Ewell, a little bit goes a long way), that Chasing Amy starts to show its low budget seams. But it's the honesty of the central romance that holds it all together

You can keep your Benny and Joons and pretty faced updates of Romeo and Juliet, by the end of Chasing Amy, you're amazed a twentysomething romance can ring so true.

--Paul Zimmerman