Kevin Smith Month rolls on with Chasing Amy, the film that was not only my favorite of the director’s but, for some time, was actually my favorite movie altogether. It’s strange looking back and thinking that. I haven’t seen Chasing Amy in full for probably close to fifteen years. I didn’t stop watching it because the movie suddenly dawned on me as terrible, nor did my fandom of Kevin Smith spoil out of nowhere; that came gradually through out the 2000s.
All that is kind of why I’m doing Kevin Smith Month for ‘Was I Nuts?’ here at Zitzelfilm. He was once a staple of my cinematic life as much as any filmmaker around. I’ve already discovered his believed to be greatest comedy (Clerks) is mostly good and his follow-up, that I hoped was also excellent (Mallrats), is in fact not-so-solid. How does the sole Criterion selected Smith picture appear nowadays? Does any part of me still think Chasing Amy has a chance to return to my favorite film status? Was I – as the series questions – nuts?
Released in April 1997, less than two years after Mallrats cut Kevin Smith off at the knees, both commercially and critically, Chasing Amy renewed both of those things. The picture garnered strong reviews and a host of awards nominations for lead actress Joey Lauren Adams, Smith’s screenplay and the film itself.
The feature took the intelligent crudeness and speed of Smith’s dialogue, brought back the edge of Clerks that went missing in Mallrats and layered onto that a narrative about dramatic romance and sexuality. It was considered a big step for the writer-director and was met with easily his most potent box-office success.
Chasing Amy is a tricky love story about the complicated romance that develops between Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams) and Holden (a just barely pre-famous Ben Affleck). The bond is there, the feelings too, but there is one big problem; Alyssa has been a lesbian for years. To be with Holden is to make a major life decision that goes against her recent sexuality. Add to that Holden’s best friend and comic book co-creator Banky (Jason Lee) is coming between them for multiple reasons. By film’s end nobody’s life is the same and significant lines have been crossed.
Well, as I said, Chasing Amy was my absolute favorite film for years upon its release. Like most of Smith’s releases at the time, I didn’t see it in theatres, but had the VHS in my library as soon as possible. The film clicked with me for a host of reasons. The script featured all of the pop-culture via geekiness Smith had seemingly mastered at that juncture. Instead of the riff on union and labor work in relation to building the Death Star in Star Wars, there was now a discussion on Darth Vader’s stance as a false, offensive black icon.
Then there was all the comic talk. I have always loved comic books, with my passion for them kicking into overdrive circa 1997. At the time, there weren’t dozens of Oscar winners vying to be involved in the latest Marvel or DC property. There also weren’t prevalent sites for discussing all things Spider-Man, at least that were known to my teen-self. Hearing people yammer about inkers, Madman or the like was nerd catnip.
Rounding out the equation was Smith’s maturation. Him creating a genuine drama about the difficulties of relationships came about at my most awkward, unsure times. Seeing these leads I could connect to 0 in relation to their passions – wrestle with love hit my high school brain in all of the soft-spots. Plus, it did so with a cast that featured several of his regulars and an expansion of the cinematic New Jersey universe, complete with a deconstruction of the part Jay and Silent Bob play within it.
In a manner, this is the Kevin Smith movie I am most anxious about it. Chasing Amy is the one I loved deepest. It’s also the last one I truly gave myself over completely too. Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back I thoroughly enjoyed and watched regularly; not like its predecessors though. Chasing Amy is on a small list of films I ever considered my favorites. Every other film that has held that spot for me I still hold in high regard, with one exception that I will be covering in the months to come.
Still, even with my less than stellar response to Mallrats abiding, I can’t imagine I was a fool to love Chasing Amy so passionately. I’m expecting a strong movie featuring a performance by Affleck in the middle of it that isn’t quite as good as I remember.
Oooooooh, that’s why I loved this movie.
Asides from the previously mentioned comic talk and wit, Chasing Amy is a really smart and progressive film, particularly for its time period. That last element I had kind of forgotten as a major part of its appeal. Several of my closest friends in high school were either homosexual or bisexual. Smith’s film does a solid job of giving voice to a demographic I found rather under-represented in the mass media. Chasing Amy goes to major lengths to breakdown a number of stigmas about the LGBT community, both in terms of emotional and physical love. This made for a rather unique viewing experience for a boring white kid in a Podunk town where you could run into the Amish at the grocery store.
All this being said, the movie is quite good, especially in its opening hour. Smith’s knack for razor-sharp dialogue is on fully display, with each of his host of characters allowed their own brand of banter. Affleck’s Holden McNeil plays off others smartly and casually. Jason Lee’s Banky Edwards is longwinded and rampaging. Joey Lauren Adams’ Alyssa is brash and self-deprecating. Dwight Ewell’s Hooper X is incendiary and to-the-point. This allows the first act to play out swiftly and easily, grafted onto the back of strong characterizations. Smith still tends to write his scenes as lengthy stages for someone to go on a diatribe, though they feel more organic. Where in Clerks and Mallrats a given exchange was typically one person going on a rant to an occasional response, Chasing Amy finds Smith bringing in his ensemble to make it more of a back-and-forth.
This is obviously helped by better actors. There is no weak link or working around a particular actor’s lack of dramatic chops; everyone pulls their weight. Lee is terrific, probably giving the finest work of his career. His Banky is bitter, easy to burn and clearly conflicted about his friend’s troublesome new relationship.. Affleck doesn’t entirely nail the part, a little stiff in several of the movie’s most dramatic exchanges for fits and spurts. He’s never bad, even if a few line readings seem to have gotten the best of him. Still, his scenes where he displays Holden’s insecurities are perfectly played. On the cusp of the last act Affleck and Ewell’s Hooper X discuss the revelation that Alyssa’s sexual history isn’t as cut-and-dry as originally perceived. Months before breaking it big with Good Will Hunting, Affleck effectively plays up Holden’s mindset, engaging in the man’s kindness, confusion and childish obtuseness.
Joey Lauren Adams is quite amazing in this, giving the kind of turn where I can’t help but ponder why her career wasn’t better. She nails Smith’s rom-com chatter with breathless ease, then ten minutes later bares her heartbreak and struggles in a raw, stunningly naked manner. Alyssa’s anguish hits the bones, chilling the core as she weeps over her inability to fit into both hetero and homosexual worlds.
Smith is able to put into words the comedic and dramatic elements with equal panache, able to make the blow-ups pop with the same zing as the diatribes about how Archie was Jughead’s bitch (“That’s why Jughead wears that crown-looking hat all the time. He the king of queen Archie’s world.”) Though his abilities with a camera and staging have never been outstanding, Smith manages to get a sincere intimacy when needed. The big verbal fight between Holden and Banky evolves simply and stunningly, stepping forth from a casual round of videogame hockey and spiraling into each one’s official stance on Alyssa. It’s one of numerous masterful scenes.
To a degree, Smith would return to this genre, though to date with none of the melancholy or intimacy. His next big play at the mainstream came with 2004’s Jersey Girl, a mostly maudlin affair that sporadically gave a peek at his skill to make two lovesick individuals meet-cute in a charming way. 2008’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno went to this well once more, hampered by its titular premise, amongst other things. It never landed any deep blows though. Perhaps Smith will attempt another proper romantic drama again and hopefully it will live up to Chasing Amy’s legacy. It will never be my favorite film again. I don’t feel any guilt over saying it once was.