A film review by Craig J. Koban
10th Anniversary Retrospective Review
1997, R, 114 mins.
Alyssa: Joey Lauren Adams / Holden: Ben Affleck / Banky:
Jason Lee / Hooper: Dwight Ewell / Jay: Jason Mewes
1997, R, 114 mins.
Alyssa: Joey Lauren Adams / Holden: Ben Affleck / Banky:
Jason Lee / Hooper: Dwight Ewell / Jay: Jason Mewes
“It's not who you love, it's how.”
- Tagline from CHASING AMY
Kevin Smith’s CHASING AMY was arguably one of the more daring, original, and inventive romantic dramadies of the 1990’s. It was a success not so much for how it utilized the conventions of the genre in question, but rather by how it turned them all upside down on their heads. There have been desperate love triangles in the movies before, but none quite as atypical as the one presented in Smith’s 1997 film.
Not only does it deal with one man falling in love with the woman of his dreams that turns out to be a lesbian, but he then has his love reciprocated back not only from her, but from his own roommate and friend for life, whom may or may not be gay himself. This trio would have been Dr. Phil’s clinical wet dream.
Now, this small build up to Smith’s third film is not to belittle it such a fashion to make it come across as contrived and formulaic. CHASING AMY – despite its highly irregular storyline – is a sharply and eloquently written drama and comedy that kind of defies all of those other witless and imbecilic romances that permeated both the 90’s and our current decade. Too many other similar films have the obligatory meet cutes of the two future lovers and then some obstacle that impedes their journey towards lifelong love. All in all, the trials and tribulations of other cinematic couples are small potatoes to the emotional problems that beset CHASING AMY’S couple.
Their main problem is sexual orientation. The man loves the woman – despite her overt homosexuality – and the woman grows to love the man – despite his heterosexuality – but these inherent differences don’t lean towards one of those routine, nicely wrapped-up endings where everyone lives happily ever after. Smith’s film keenly understands that life does not so neatly work out for the better for all participants. Love is a complicated beast that oftentimes can't be tamed.
I guess it was a bit of reluctance that I sat through CHASING AMY during my first viewing of it on home video back in 1997. Smith’s filmmaking resume was a bit uneven leading into it. He was already a fan favourite of mine after making a gigantic splash with his ultra-low budget, grainy black and white ode to slackerdom, CLERKS (1994), which took scatological shenanigans to whole new heights of hilarity. The wonderful aspect of that film was the very presence of Smith on the written page. The dialogue was remarkably coarse and vulgar, but the characters engaged in interesting and intriguing conversations that did not shy away from frankness, or a hard-R rating. No subject matter was deemed inappropriate for the lazy convenience store workers of that film. Discussions ranged from whether or not innocent contract laborers were killed when the Death Star blew up in STAR WARS or whether or not one clerk’s girlfriend actually performed one intimate sexual act on 37 men.
Of course, those that have such an auspicious filmmaking debut always seem to have a difficult time achieving sophomoric glory, and Smith was no exception. Lured in by a much larger budget (several million dollars instead of CLERK’s paltry $30,000) and by a big studio and larger cast, Smith made MALLRATS in 1995, an oftentimes amusing - but largely forgettable - second film that failed to generate critical or box office accolades. Yes, some of the characters from his first film where present (namely Smith’s Silent Bob and his drug dealing buddy Jason, played with zombified cluelessness by Jason Mewes), as well as the setting (this was the second film in Smith’s self-anointed View-Askewniverse series of films set in Jersey, his hometown Garden State). The jokes and pop-cultured laced dialogue were there. Yet, the flavor was all wrong and Smith later acknowledged this in many later interviews. “They (Universal Studios) wanted us to make a smart PORKY'S,” said Smith in one DVD documentary. That alone kind of reflected the future doom of the production.
Once you have fallen so greatly, the only possible way to go is up, and Smith understood this in the wake of MALLRATS' unmitigated failure. Realizing that he no longer could afford to alienate his small - but religiously loyal - fan base that his first film created, Smith knew that he would need something special out of the gate for this third film in his Askewniverse series. Finding inspiration in his feelings of inadequacy in his own love and social life, he wrote CHASING AMY as a form of catharsis (the script, by Smith’s own admission, was largely inspired by his own relationship with then-girlfriend Joey Lauren Adams, who would also star in the film as its female lead).
Like his previous two films, CHASING AMY felt familiar based on its New Jersey locales, characters, and in the themes and dialogue. The sheer difference with this effort was in the range and dynamic of the relationships and emotions in the film. The characters now felt more real and well rounded and the events in the film seemed to have more dramatic relevance. This was a Smith film that was more mature, articulate, and literate. When he finally pitched it to Miramax and said he wanted his own three choices of actors for the leads (the then unknown Ben Affleck, Jason Lee, and Adams), the studio responded by saying that they wanted more commercial actors, like John Stewart, David Schwimmer, and Drew Barrymore. Ouch!
Being a shrewd businessman, Smith knew that he would have to take a huge budgetary cut to the film in order to have his dream cast. The studio was to originally give the young director $3 million to make the film with their actor input, but Smith was able to negotiate down to a quarter of a million (1/20th of MALLRATS’ budget) to secure the rights to make the film with whomever he wanted. Miramax saw this as an obvious steal of a deal and granted Smith his wish. History would prove Smith to be the smarter of the two for his casting decisions. Affleck alone gave his best performance of his career, Lee’s work acted as a catalyst for his own successful career on TV, and Adams alone was nominated for a Golden Globe for her work as the trouble female love interest.
The film begins with two hetero-lifemates named Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck, who has never been better) and Banky Edwards (Jason Lee, at his foul-mouthed, side-splitting best) who are successful comic book creators. Their most recent effort, BLUNTMAN AND CHRONIC, is a huge best seller with a possible cartoon and movie deal in the works. As the film opens they work a comic convention and – at least to some people – they are big celebs. They have lives that kids kind of dream of: Video games, comic books, and consequence- free bachelor living. In short, life is fantastic for the two and things could never be better.
And then comes Alyssa Jones.
Jones (Joey Lauren Adams, in a star making performance) shows up during a one of the comic cons to promote her more female-targeted book, IDIOSYNCRATIC ROUTINE. She is a member of a panel during a conference where another militant black comic artist named Hooper (the hilarious Dwight Ewell) discusses his book, WHITE HATING COON. He pontificates on how white society enslaves the black community in one of the film’s funny high points, as is his highly unique dissertation on the symbolism of the STAR WARS TRILOGY (a staple element of Smithian dialogue). “You got cracker farm boy Luke Skywalker," he explains, “Nazi poster boy, blond hair, blue eyes. And then you got Darth Vader, the blackest brother in the galaxy, Nubian god! And then Vader's beautiful black visage is sullied when he pulls off his mask to reveal a feeble, crusty, old white man! They tryin' to tell us that deep inside we all wants to be white!” After a brief bout of theatrics, and when the conference room clears, the angry and white hating Hooper turns out to be friends of Banky and Holden…not to mention a puppy dog of a gay man.
It is through Hooper that Holden meets Alyssa. He is instantly smitten by her girl-next-door good looks and by her innate likeability. Banky senses something suspicious about her, but he just can’t put his finger on it. Holden soon makes it his mission to woe the woman. During a night of dart playing and drinks Holden and Alyssa seem to really hit it off. He later confesses to Banky that he feels the two had a connection and “shared” an emotional moment that could speak positively to a bright future. Banky is not so sure. Holden is later invited to another night out and hopes to hook up with her…. that is until he finds out the worst thing that any man pining for the affection of a lady could:
Alyssa is gay!
Holden is shocked, but Banky seems to take it all rather humorously (“Since you like chicks,” he asks her, “do you just look at yourself naked in the mirror all the time?”). Holden finds it increasingly difficult to carry on for the rest of the evening and then leaves. Days later Alyssa shows up unannounced at his doorstep and invites him out for a walk. The two then discuss their mutual feelings about Alyssa’s reveal of her homosexuality, and Smith’s dialogue is brilliant in its execution, spontaneity, and simplicity of tone. Holden precisely asks the questions any man in his position would and Alyssa kindly and frankly answers them. “So, you’ve never been curious about men,” she politely asks the inquisitive Holden, to which he dryly responds, “Well, I always wondered why my father watched 'Hee Haw'.”
Alyssa offers Holden platonic friendship, and he amazingly agrees that it would be okay, despite his hidden feelings for her. You see, the more Holden spends with Alyssa the more he begins to fall for her. They begin to have a nice, easy-going chemistry that would normally lead any two people down the path to romantic love. Yet…Alyssa is gay, a point that the very nervous and frustrated Banky keeps trying to point out to his buddy. Holden takes his friend’s concerns with a grain a salt, but deep down he is deeply in love with this woman.
One night he snaps and can take no more, and in one of the cinema’s all-time great declaration’s of love and admiration, he confesses every single one of his hidden feelings that he has for her in the single best scene Smith has penned. “You are the epitome of everything I have ever looked for in another human being…. there isn't another soul on this fucking planet who has ever made me half the person I am when I'm with you…. please know that I'm forever changed because of who you are and what you've meant to me.” It is a strong testament to Smith the writer that he can write male characters with so much compassion and vulnerability.
Incredibly, Alyssa responds by sleeping with him, perhaps because she was so emotionally moved by his feelings. Maybe no other person – straight or gay – has ever confessed to caring so much. Unfortunately, just as their real relationship begins to blossom, they hit some real setbacks. They come in the form of Alyssa’s promiscuous sexual proclivities of the past that Holden has a hard time dealing with and the fact that…hmmmm…Banky has his own…shall we say…internalized issues with seeing his best friend leave him.
Perhaps more than just about any other film in his career (with the exception of his unfairly chastised JERSEY GIRL from 2004) CHASING AMY manages to be about something. The first CLERKS film dealt with the laziness of twentysomething youth and its sequel dealt with the crisis that develops when one moves into their 30’s. Other Smith efforts like DOGMA had some obvious spiritual significance, despite its often lowbrow comedy. Yet, AMY perhaps represents Smith’s best hour as a writer of convincing characters and he never lets them comes across on a false note.
Characters voice their feelings without censoring themselves for a moment, and the romance and relationship between the Holden and Alyssa is nuanced, subtle, and patient. There is not one subtle subtext of cliché to their love. Everything is handled with tact and economy. Smith himself has come under fire by the gay community for what they claim is his stance on how any woman – given the right set of circumstances – would go back to being straight if the "right" man helped. They entirely miss the point. CHASING AMY is not about that at all. It wisely understand the emotional uncertain that permeates relationships and a fear of coming to grips with one’s sexual identity. Love, in a way, can transcend gender.
Aside from Smith’s effortless and masterful handling of the love story, he still commands the screen with his irreverent and funny dialogue. The emotional gambit that the film covers is remarkably varied. At times, the conversations are lewd and crude, as is the case when Banky and Hooper argue whether or not Archie and Jughead were closeted gays and how exactly does one define “losing your virginity” if it sex involves two woman. There is yet another funny - and insightful - moment where Alyssa matter-of-factly reveals to Holden how two woman can achieve vaginal intercourse without the use of male organs. A scene where Banky and Alyssa reveal to each other old “sex war wounds” from previous encounters is a real howler. It curiously echoes a very similar scene involving Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw in JAWS (one of Smith’s favourite films) where the two exchange shark wound tales.
CHASING AMY, like CLERKS, deservedly received its R-rating, which in a way is a blessing because the characters are able to express themselves freely. Even when Smith is letting his characters fire off zingers left and right, he still manages to let the screenplay level out with moments of sincerity and honesty, as is the case with a incredible final scene where Banky, Holden, and Alyssa all gather to openly discuss their mutual feelings with one another. As the film grinds to a close you grow to realize that it has become something much deeper and profound. The film begins as lightweight comedy, slowly develops into a romance, and then dives into weighty issues of love and sacrifice. No other Smith film has so confidently covered such varied ground.
CHASING AMY also befitted from some spot-on performances by its leads. Affleck, who has let his recent personal life cloud over his skills as an actor, gives one of his best, most layered performances as Holden. Alongside more recent work, like his Oscar worthy turn in the under-appreciated HOLLYWOODLAND and his work as a widowed husband in JERSEY GIRL, Affleck is able to command such a level of sensitivity and poignancy with his work, and he develops such a effortless chemistry with Adams. The performance high point of the film would most certainly be Adams and she does not allow for Alyssa to get bogged down into stereotype. This was one of the first films that I recall seeing where the lesbian characters were not deviants or ice-pick wielding sociopaths, but characters with feelings, ambitions, hidden pains, and uncertainties about themselves and the world. Adams was so effective in her tricky role that how an Oscar nomination eluded her escapes me to this day.
Kevin Smith’s CHASING AMY – ten years after its initial release – still emerges as one of the more touching, funny, and unique romantic dramadies of the last decade. By efficiently combining his trademark acid-tongued dialogue with characteristic pop culture references alongside rich and wonderfully drawn characters, Smith was able to follow up the inane MALLRATS with a film of both comedic and dramatic weight. Its story of a straight man that falls for a gay woman is handled with such care and eloquence that showcases how strongly Smith had his finger on the pulse of his personas. CHASING AMY is funny, sweet, and touching, but its also equal parts smart and original. It helped Smith emerge from the disaster that was MALLRATS and back into the status of Indy scribe-sensation. After watching the film you get the overwhelming sense that Smith really cared about his audience, and he even managed to deal with his critics of his last abortive effort. In the closing end credits for AMY he wrote, “And to all the critics who hated our last flick -- all is forgiven."