A twisted, 20-something Affair To Remember, Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy is seriously romantic in a way that would drive the guy protagonists of Smith's first two movies to distraction. Smith names his hero "Holden" and sends him traipsing through the rye to catch a glamorously free-spirited and self-professed lesbian. You could accuse CA of being a cartoon, but the movie admits to that freely. Looking like Mallrats and sounding like Clerks- a film of bright, inert compositions and constant chatter- CA begins at a crazy New York ComiCon attended by a pair of superstar slackers, Holden (Ben Affleck) and Banky (Jason Lee, Shannon Doherty's boyfriend in Mallrats). The artistic team responsible for the cult comic book, Bluntman and Chronic, they have ventured in from New Jersey and - tales of the city- wind up on a panel with the beautiful Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), a less well-known cartoonist with a more developed sense of sexual bravade.
Adams, a mannered performer with a teasing, moonfaced sneer and Kewpie-doll voice, who appeared to some advantage in the chaotic Mallrats, is here charismatic by default. Jast as the black militant cartoonist (Dwight Ewell) who mau-maus the convention turns out to be a swishy queen, so her character turns out to have a secret identity. Convinced that she's hot for him, Holden follows Alyssa down to Meow Mix, an East Village den of lipstick lesbianism complete with Go Fish and Watermelon Women star Guinevere Turner. His dumbfounded expression when he watches Alyssa lip-lock with another gorgeous chick is almost worth the price of admission. (As the practical Banky points out, where else could guys like them get to see this for free?)
Smith's self-referential New Jersey world has evidently expanded to comment on the independent film scene. Indeed, CA seems to have been conceived at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, wehre both Clerks and Go Fish had their premieres under the shrewd auspices of producer rep John Pierson. The chaste Rocky Mountain romance between the "clerky boys" and "go-go girls" figures prominently in Pierson's indie memoir, Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes: "Kevin described Guinevere poignantly: 'Such a pretty name for such a pretty girl. It is cool that she's gay because you can play with her, talk smack, and not get crossed wires. Good fences make good neighbors.'"
Pierson notes that the "very curious" Smith discovered far more than he about the go-go girls' sex lives. Thus, the question that dominates CA's first half ("How can a girl fuck another girl?") is less crudely hostile than unabashedly clueless. That the movie's comic set piece- a montage in which Banky and Alyssa briefly bond in swapping hyperbolic instances of cunnilingual misadventure- winds up as a brief from better sexual communication is an early clue to the progressive direction of the Smith agenda. Political correctness notwithstanding, youth wants to know. "Since you like chicks, do you just look at yourself naked in the mirror all the time?" Banky asks Alyssa.
Not everyone is going to find CA endearing- as Smith has anticipated. The uptight Holden and tantilizing Alyssa become friends, even sharing an evening of skeeball on the South Shore. "How was your pseudodate?" jealous Banky whines. Holden is soon accusing his partner of "passive-aggressive gay bashing," and, with their (creative) marriage on the rocks, the smitten cartoonist raises the stakes by declaring his love to Alyssa. The scene, scored to some sort of Swingle Singer drone, is as risky for Smith as for Holden- it's matched by another, lifted from Go Fish, in which Alyssa informs her friends that she's dating a man.
Colorful language, explicit description, and a brief bit in which Banky purports to share his stroke book with a seven-year-old notwithstanding, CA isn't as raunchy so much as it is didactic. Although Affleck may be even more stodgily earnest than his part was written, Smith seems to have taken the idea of a straight man literally. By the time the filmmaker appears in his standard cameo as mallrat dope-dealer Silent Bob, CA has become almost embarrassingly sincere. Smith is clearly trying to work something through- that it turns out to be venerable dichotomy between the virgin and the whore is less than anticlimactic.
Holden's lugubrious solution to the problem of Banky, Alyssa and Alyssa's past- "We've all got to have sex together"- suggest an afternoon spent pondering old R. Crumb comix without getting the jokes. Still, it takes guts for Smith to cast his alter ego as something like Mr. Natural's foil. (Actually, CA is full of Smith surrogates, not only does Affleck resemble the writer-director, Silent Bob is the model for Holden's Bluntman). "Smith is as personal a filmmaker as... Stan Brakhage," one of the director's fans assured me heatedly. While Smith's particular form of male psychodrama has less to do with Scenes From Under Childhood than the real-life Sunday-afternoon alternative-radio show where a zonked pair of New Jersey fat boys mix Led Zeppelin with Sinatra while ranting about wrestling and "the queers," there's no denying that CA was made from some inner necessity.
Self-absorbed as it may be, CA isn't smug; however provocatively sexist it seems, the movie still spends most of its time chasing its own tail. The nature of this activity, no less than the place where it winds up, suggests that the filmmaker himself is the work in progress.