Director completes his Jersey Trilogy with "Chasing Amy"

Bob Campbell
STAR-LEDGER STAFF

Twenty-six-year-old insider-outsider Kevin Smith wraps up his "New Jersey Trilogy" with "Chasing Amy," a sidewinding sex comedy that serves up a zigzagging curveball.

While mining the same landscape of blue-collar suburban youth as in his popular no-budget "Clerks" and his widely reviled "Mallrats," Smith broadens his social and behavioral perspective. His movie is about, and marked by, growing pains.

Its subject is the infatuation of stolid young Red Bank comic book artist Holden (Ben Affleck) with a trippy New York lesbian (Joey Lauren Adams). Piling outer conflict on inner, Holden's moody partner Banky (Jason Lee) tries to sabotage the couple's prospects.

Holden and Banky, famous within the comix subculture as creators of offbeat superheroes "Bluntman and Chronic," are reluctant to let go of their last ties to childhood. The lifelong pals hole up in a funky Red Bank headquarters, venturing into New York only to pursue assignments and girls.

Played by Affleck with appealing uncertainty, Holden is the more adventurous and adaptable one. Dismayed and improbably shocked to learn that goofball comic artist and sometime rocker Alyssa Jones (Adams) is gay, he's able to not let that fact block a deepening friendship which slowly ripens into love.

Adams' Alyssa, endowed with an overload of squeaky winsomeness, sets aside her initial anger to embrace what she secretly wants. To the caricatured horror of her lesbian circle, she snuggles in with her first serious boyfriend.

Banky, agitated, plots to part them. The male-male undertones are so obvious as to seem consciously evaded, but Smith - in his one-thing-at-a-time way - finally confronts them head-on. One odd note is that no one, not even cool Alyssa, seems ever to have heard of bisexuality. Devoted to breaking down rigid categories and confining preconceptions, the movie unconsciously reinforces them.

There's something fanciful about the guy-meets-lesbian setup, but the movie switches to a more personal tack halfway through. At peace with Alyssa's lesbian past, Holden recoils when Banky dredges up her sordid hetero exploits. Reviving a chord from "Clerks" and "Mallrats," yet another Smith hero is freaked out by the sexual history of another Jones girl.

Smith's story sense is fitful, and he's over-dependent on farfetched oddballs and snappy sketch routines for laughs. He seems most certain of his ground during Holden's heart-to-heart with two eccentric drug dealers. Lank- haired Jason Mewes reprises his speedy doper dude from the two previous films. Dwight Ewell exudes beefy melancholy as the sidekick whose own story which gives "Chasing Amy" its title - replays Smith's uncertainties about female sexual freedom.

A fundamentally goodhearted grab bag of the naive and the hip, the sincere and the sardonic, "Chasing Amy" resembles the shabby convenience store left over from "Clerks." Junk food filler is over-represented, while more refined delicacies are missing altogether. But it's possible to piece together a satisfying picnic from the tastier items at hand.

RATING NOTE- Shying away from nudity and overt sexual activity, the movie compensates with brazenly raunchy dialogue riffs.