Wednesday January 29 8:37 AM EST

REVIEW/FILM: 'Clerks' Helmer Comes Out With Lesbian Flick

Chasing Amy (Romantic comedy/drama, color, no rating, 1:51)

By Todd McCarthy, Daily Variety Chief Flm Critic

PARK CITY, Utah (Variety) - An unexpectedly emotional change of pace after the spirited antic comedy of Clerks and the dismal antic comedy of Mallrats, Chasing Amy sees writer/director Kevin Smith grappling with some touchy sexual and dramatic issues, material that he nonetheless shoots through with some wild, offbeat humor.

The story of a young man's attempt at romance with a self-professed lesbian, this spring Miramax release will be a tricky sell: some gays and lesbians will undoubtedly decry it, Smith's youthful fans could find it too angst-ridden and viewers older than 30 are likely to consider the film's central issues not exactly pressing, its point of view too immature. For all of this, however, pic is fundamentally amusing and appealing, so there could be a way for it to catch on, despite the odds.

Clearly trying to expand his horizons while retaining his ties to colorful young New Jersey characters, Smith pivots his yarn on two central intimate questions: the possibility of a confirmed lesbian's crossing over to begin a serious affair with a man, and the ability of that man to deal with the woman's extensive sexual past. The hyper-sensitive PC climate makes these matters, especially the first one, delicate ones for a straight filmmaker to deal with, and people on the sexual front lines may object out of hand. But the film comes off as a completely honest attempt to cope with edgy sexual politics from a hetero, if rather callow, perspective.

Reminiscent of Mallrats at the outset, film opens at a Gotham comic-book convention, where best friends Holden (Ben Affleck) and Banky (Jason Lee) are signing copies of their popular Bluntman & Chronic. Providing a taste of the political irreverence to come is the appearance of black cartoonist Hooper (Dwight Ewell), who is first seen delivering a militant diatribe against the way minorities have been portrayed in comic books, only to reveal himself privately as a campy, acerbic queen who tends bar at the femme-slanted Meox Mix club.

When Holden expresses an interest in attractive, live-wire fellow artist Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), Hooper plays a joke on him by inviting him to the club, where, in one of the film's funniest scenes, Holden's cocky confidence that Alyssa has the hots for him is suddenly deflated when he sees her making out with a woman. Nonetheless, a friendship blossoms in a series of pseudo-dates, the frequency of which comes to greatly annoy Banky, who criticizes his roommate for thinking that a real relationship is possible.

But Holden is a goner, completely under the spell of this unpredictable, spontaneous young woman. In a very well-written and performed scene nearly an hour into the tale, Holden lets all his feelings out, telling Alyssa, with difficulty and eloquence, how much he loves her. Initially speechless, Alyssa then explodes with anger over what she views as an impossible betrayal of their friendship. But she quickly has second thoughts, and the two embark on a passionate romance fraught with the prospect of land mines down the road. Not the least of these is Holden's devastation at learning that Alyssa was quite the wild thing in high school, a sexually adventurous and promiscuous girl who once took on two guys at the same time.

In the film's most extended example of Smith's method of leavening dramatic scenes with comic kicks, the low of the couple's break is quickly undercut with a very funny scene dominated by the twosome previously seen in Smith's earlier pictures, Jay (Jason Mewes), a surreally comic version of a teenage slacker, and Silent Bob (Smith), who tells Holden a relevant story from his own past that coincidentally gives the film its title.

Holden's solution to his dilemma, which involves confronting Alyssa and Banky together, is contrived and too jokey; by contrast, pic's coda is on the soft side. Although Smith may accurately reflect a time in most people's lives when they are trying to make sense of issues relating to sexual jealousy and confusion, he does so in a way that retains too much adolescent snickering to be very edifying to viewers much older than the characters.

But much of the dialogue is good, and Smith does a decent job of presenting the emotional fallout from every major participant's point of view. Affleck, as the love-afflicted young man, has traditional leading man good looks and is a fine protagonist here. Adams, who resembles Renee Zellwegger to an extraordinary degree, is vivacious and credible as a young woman taking the boldest step of her already adventurous life, while Lee brings a tartly sarcastic reading to Banky. Bringing further fun to the proceedings are Dwight Ewell, as the waspishly wise Hooper, and Jason Mewes, as the flippant diner philosopher.

Tech credits are modest but OK.

Holden McNeil ........ Ben Affleck

Alyssa Jones ......... Joey Lauren Adams

Banky Edwards ........ Jason Lee

Hooper ............... Dwight Ewell

Jay .................. Jason Mewes

Silent Bob ........... Kevin Smith

A Miramax release of a View Askew production. Produced by Scott Mosier. Executive producer, John Pierson.

Directed, written by Kevin Smith. Camera (Technicolor), David Klein; editors, Smith, Scott Mosier; production design, Robert (Ratface) Holtzman; art direction, Jim Williams; set decoration, Susannah McCarthy; costume design-line producer, Derrick Tseng; sound (Dolby), William Kozy; Bluntman & Chronic/Chasing Amy artwork by Mike Alfred; associate producer, Robert Hawk; assistant director, John M. Tyson; casting, Shan Lory. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premiere), Jan. 24, 1997.