Barry J Stiefel

Sometimes we go to the movies to try on and explore lives very different from our own. Several recent examples come to mind: "Heat", introducing us to unexpectedly disciplined bank robbers and the women who love them; "Men in Black", with its government alien-sitters; and "Trainspotting", presenting simultaneously life-affirming and life-destroying heroin addicts. The fact that these three films might be sneeringly labeled "Shooting Bad Guys", "Shooting Aliens", and "Shooting Heroin" belies the vast differences between their lives and ours. But what if the lives we stepped into for an hour or two were just slightly different from ours, and maybe a little more desirable? What if the characters had more interesting jobs, were just a bit better looking and maybe got to the gym a little more often than we do? And were then faced with interesting challenges and opportunities, allowing us to sit back and watch how they try to work things out? We might learn something and might see ourselves a little more clearly.

This is the kind of attainable fantasy director Kevin Smith offers us in his engaging and entertaining "Chasing Amy", the third film of his "New Jersey Trilogy", after the shoestring "Clerks" and the big budget, low-IQ "Mall Rats". The third time is the charm for Mr. Smith.

The premise is this: Boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy finds out she's gay. They settle for "best friends", but boy's infatuation is unabated, while his long-time pal stews in jealousy and resentment.

That's the setup, and there's a lot of room to run and territory to explore before these three will arrive, exhausted, at a final resolution of sorts after a series of arguments, fights, reconciliations, heart-to-heart talks, accusations, screaming expositions and emerging truths. The best part is the depth and complexity that emerges as Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams) and Holden (Ben Affleck) and Holden's long-time friend and partner Banky (Jason Lee) really begin to talk. At some point, all three of them find their long-held beliefs and intertwining relationships to be severely tested.

There are a lot of things to like in this movie and I can do no better than to simply enumerate a few.

I liked how all three of the main characters had to really face some tou gh questions; Alyssa, when she rethinks what it means to be gay, although there's a rainy scene in which her change of heart doesn't seem realistic; Holden, when confronted with the fact that he has perhaps a double standard for his lover's former relationships, gay and straight; and Banky, who questions a lifetime of friendship and partnering with Holden. The peak of Holden and Banky's conflict comes as a very funny joke involving a four-way intersection and a "crisp, new $100 bill". By the time the elaborate setup is complete and the trap snaps shut, we're ready for, and we get, a punch line worthy of our patience.

I liked Joey Lauren Adams' intensity in a big scene outside an ice rink. This is her emotional peak, but her voice does sort of grate by the end. This is a woman who's made some choices in her life, choices that lesser people might regret, but she's not for a minute a coward about living with the consequences. Her integrity is irreproachable.

It was also fun to see some recurring themes from the two previous films ; a hockey game, our introduction to another of the Jones sisters, a deeply philosophical discussion about "Star Wars" and another visit from Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (the director Smith).

Who is Amy? Near the end, after an hour of quick, snappy, witty dialogu e, I simply held my breath while Silent Bob quietly told us the story of Amy. It is a profoundly sad requiem of loss and a longing to undo a foolish mistake. It is the emotional underpinning of the whole film. We all have an "Amy" in our lives, and the message hits home.

Mr. Smith proves you can make an amazingly good movie for only $250,000, even though lesser films released today can cost 400 times as much. But I guess good dialogue isn't necessarily expensive. In an era in which a cartoonist can make millions harpooning corporate leaders who speak and yet manage to say precisely nothing at all, it's refreshing to see three people who haven't yet learned those skills, people who speak from the heart and mean what they say. I'm sure I'm not the only viewer who was distressed when the final scenes leave them apart. I was riveted to these characters, and when the movie was over, I wanted to spend more time with them.

Mr. Smith is the bard of New Jersey, and we would do well to hear more from him.