Written and directed by Kevin Smith
**** (4 stars)
Near the end of Kevin Smith's terrific new comedy, Chasing Amy, his yoda of the shopping mall, Silent Bob, speaks. As anyone who's seen Smith's earlier pictures - the grungy, disgustingly funny Clerks and the equally rude Mallrats - will know, this is a real event. What prompts Silent Bob's outburst is the angst of Smith's hero Holden (Ben Affleck), who tells the Silent One that he has reached the end of the line. Holden's career as a comic book writer is at risk, as is his relationship with his best friend and business partner, Banky (Jason Lee). He hardly ever smiles and does'nt even make jokes anymore. The reason is that Holden's romance with his 'ideal woman', Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), looks doomed.
Silent Bob then imparts some wisdom: He tells a tale of a wonderful romance, a perfect union of mind, body and spirit. Until he reveals at the end of his story the sad truth - that jelousy, insecurity and fear (his own) fucked it all up. Silent Bob then sighs heavily: "Ever since I've been chasing Amy". That melancholy reflection is the heart of Smith's clever, poignant and insightful movie.
Fans of Smith's vulgar, smart, ironic movies may be worried at this point. Has the Great Chronicler of Mall Culture gone soft in making ab all-stops-out, dates 'n' kissing, holding-hands-and-good-times, sharing-inner-thoughts type romance? Like Woody Allen before him, does Smith want respect as well as laughs?
Well, yes and no. Because soft here does'nt mean gooey; it just means that Smith, like his characters, has grown up a bit.
They are still into intense debates on intricate philosophical propositions, like why the Star Wars trilogy is a neo-Nazi wet dream full of Aryan poster boys, or the precise sexual nature of Archie and Jughead's relationship (lovers probably). They still like porn and TV ice hockey. But as the movie opens, easy-goin Holden and his uptight pal Banky are on the verge of the Big Time. Their bestselling comic book, Bluntman and Chronic ("for overweight or underweight guys who don't get laid"), which fictionalises the mall aventures of Silent Bob and his best friend Jay, may soon become an animated series.
But there are bigger, more personal changes to face. Holden wants a deeper relationship than the easy intimacy he has with Banky. This explains, in a way, why he falls for the beautiful blonde with the throaty voice, Alyssa, a fellow comic book artist. Trouble is, Alyssa is gay. Trouble is, Banky secretly loves Holden (which everybody seems to acknowledge except Holden and Banky). Trouble is, Holden finds Alyssa's past of torrid sexual adventures (threesomes and the like) just too hard to take.
What's so good about Chasing Amy is that Smith gets into this serious-toned drama of emotional turmoil with the same high velocity wit that enriched his first two films. Which is to say that Chasing Amy is as crude, crass and anti-PC as it is heartfelt, warm and intimate. This isn't just because Smith's dialogue is so character-rich, theme-dense and funny, it's because for the first time he's put on screen real, full-blooded characters, not merely comic comic versions of familiar types.
He's still got a passion for parody - in a hilarious piss-take of the scar-swapping scene in Jaws, Banky and Alyssa exchange war stories on the dangers of cunnilingus. Like the two Brooks (Mel and Albert) and Woody Allen, Smith thinks verbally, so visually the film has zero style (stationary camera, simple frames, no elaborate choreography). Yet this approach yields big dividends. The actors, especially Adams, are given the time and the space to get inside the cracks of Smith's eloquent dialogue. When Alyssa stakes out her emotional territory in a heart-scraping scene set in a downpour, we feel her crisis deeply.
Though the plot moves seem like rehearsals of the traditional romance, Chasing Amy is full of surprising nuances and odd digressions that throw the central romance into ironic high relief. Throughout the picture, characters and situations are not only more than they seem, they are revealed to be almost the precise opposite.
Hooper (Dwight Ewell), one of Holden's best friends, is a camp black man who pretends to be a macho militant who wants all white men dead. This is not only funny but moving as Smith points out that there's something seriously wrong with the market when an artist has to deliver a pose just to see a comic book. This is the flip side of PC and the real invisible centre of Smith's so-called male-centered vision. Here Smith's female chracters get to challenge the dopey fantasies of his puerile male heroes, and the film's tough but tender climax might be seen as a concession not to realism but to that great totem of the art-movie maker, the "personal statement".
Chasing Amy is a movie about how painful it is to define an indentity that is true to one's soul in a world full of unreal expectations. And I can't help but read rich significance into the fact that it is Smith himself, as Silent Bob, who delivers the movie's best lines.