Chasing Amy 09/01/2009
Written & Directed by Kevin Smith
Chasing Amy is a modest and deeply personal comedy that is both emotionally resonant and genuinely funny. The story follows the relationships between three comic book creators, whose lives all change by the end of the film. It opens in the fascinating world of a low-rent comic book convention where geeks and artists roam. We see the usual suspects one would expect. As a comic book fan, I can tell you that most of us are intelligent and just enjoy the art form, but yes the numbskull fans who cling on to their funny books which provide them with their pathetic vicarious lives do exist as well, as we see in the opening scene. Also on the exhibit hall floor are those donned in costume, such as a lone woman as some sort of alien robot.
Writer/director Kevin Smith began his career with the indie classic, Clerks, a film he made by maxing out his credit cards and hiring his friends. The main appeal of Clerks was its authenticity. Smith, who worked at the convenience store that just about the entire film takes place at, successfully translated his feelings of disenfranchisement on screen. What he lacked in visual style and versatility, he made up for with a hell of a script. The dialogue between all of his characters was fresh, funny and edgy. Now armed with a legion of like-minded fans, Kevin Smith set out to make his sophomore film, Mallrats. While a solid comedy from a just-for-laughs point of view, it lacked the resonance and honesty of his debut and featured more contrived comedy and situations. One of its saving graces was pro-skateboarder turned actor Jason Lee’s first performance, which was full of comic force. It was clear that Lee had a knack for properly conveying Smith’s token dialogue better than anyone. Mallrats was a complete failure commercially, and Smith set out to make a low budget film that would focus more on drama and in particular his personal issues with insecurity.
Chasing Amy would prove to be Smith’s best film at that point of his career, and even up to today. He was able to harness his ear for dialogue and create fully formed characters that essentially all represented a part of himself, none more closely than the protagonist, Holden McNeil. His comedy was sharper, the drama was poignant, and his insights were relevant. Basically he was able to take the authentic feel of Clerks and expand it into a legitimate work of art. Nothing contributed more to this authenticity than Smith’s real life relationship with the lead actress, Joey Lauren Adams.
Smith and Adams had been dating for some time, and when they became close enough to reveal each other’s personal backgrounds, Smith was appalled. The sexual past of his significant other was far bolder and experienced, so much so that he became overwhelmed. Feeling inadequate in comparison, Smith requested that Adams should apologize for her promiscuous choices. Of course, Adams wouldn’t budge, explaining that what matters are her choices in the present. In order to deal with his insecurity and closet conservatism, Smith wrote the script for Chasing Amy, casting Joey Lauren Adams as Alyssa Jones, a lesbian, with an impressive sexual history, and casting Ben Affleck as his surrogate self. Jason Lee was cast as Holden’s homophobic best friend, Banky.
All three of the lead actors give the best performances of their respective careers. Before Affleck became famous and miscast as a typical Hollywood lead, he was the perfect everyman. In Chasing Amy, Affleck brings a believable naiveté and normalness severely lacking in American film. Adams is very convincing as a woman struggling between filling her chosen role and following her heart. Jason Lee is once again the biggest surprise, as he is able to be alternately hilarious, offensive, and heartbreaking. Each performance, while filled with necessary humour, is subtle and perfectly suited to the film.
Smith is notorious for being a less than capable director, and while it is true to a certain extent, his human qualities and level of openness are refreshing and rare. Also, it is hard to fault a man who is the first to admit his flaws. When director David Gordon Green said that Kevin Smith turned indie filmmaking into a kind of Special Olympics, Smith found the comment too clever to be offensive. As is always the case, Kevin Smith accepts all criticism, and reminds us of his strengths as a gifted writer.
After making Chasing Amy, Smith claimed the experience to have been cathartic, and that he was rid of his insecurity. He and Adams would break up, but because of that relationship and the film it inspired, Smith would be the man he needed to be when he soon met Jennifer Schawlbach, his future wife. I believe the catharsis of Chasing Amy to be very powerful. The effect it had on Smith himself can be had on its audience. Understandably, the film tends to be more effective for males. Essentially it is a story about a guy learning to be a man.
Now much further in his career, Smith has yet to recapture some of the magic of Chasing Amy. The scene between Holden and Banky, where each reveals their feelings about Alyssa’s presence in their lives, is masterful. It begins with a lot of tension, when Holden tells Banky to stop gay bashing in casual conversation. Banky retaliates by putting Holden through an interesting exercise. He draws a four-way road with a hundred dollar bill in the middle. Equidistant from the bill are Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, a friendly lesbian, and a “man-hating dyke”. The question is who gets to the bill first; the answer is the man-hating dyke as she, according to Banky, is the only real person out of the options. Banky is suppressing his own homosexual fantasies and warring against himself through his friendship. Both infuriated, the best friends argue at the top of their lungs, until eventually Holden admits he is in love with Alyssa. This is the best-directed scene of Smith’s career. We see a friendship begin to crumble and it feels inevitable and devastating.
In another strong scene later in the film, Holden has lunch with Jay and Silent Bob (played by Smith, himself). Bob breaks his token silence in order to give Holden advice in a wonderful monologue that gives the film its title. He tells the story of a past girlfriend, Amy, whom he had discovered engaged in several threesomes. Bob felt angry and upset and like Holden, and like Kevin Smith, he failed to understand that if someone is choosing to love you now, what they did before is of little importance. As Bob puts it, he since has been spending his time “chasing Amy”. Comically, and tragically Holden misinterprets this sage-like advice and makes a ridiculous proposition.
One night, Holden gets Alyssa and Banky to both be present for a meeting. At this meeting, he asks Alyssa and Banky to have sex with him at the same time. This way, Holden will have done something on Alyssa’s “level” and Banky can comfortably transition into homosexuality. Banky agrees to do it, but Alyssa rightfully refuses. She explains that what she did before was a result of confusion over her sexual origin and a necessary step in her life, but that promiscuity was behind her. Above all, she is hurt that Holden would want to share her. This scene is comically genius, but ends with each relationship obliterated.
We next see Holden a year later at a comic book convention. He locks eyes with Banky from across the room. It is clear that they have not spoken for a long time. They share a beautiful, silent conversation through smiles and hand gestures. We sense each guy has become a man, that while they may no longer be friends, they have gained perspective and still love each other. It is a beautiful way of showing how the most important relationships we share are still significant after they have ceased. Next, Holden approaches Alyssa at her signing booth. He gives her a comic book he wrote, titled Chasing Amy, which tells the story of their relationship, not unlike how Smith “gave” the film Chasing Amy to Joey Lauren Adams. Holden leaves, having finally moved on. The camera pulls out in the exhibit hall, and we see the woman in the costume from the beginning meet a man in the same costume. They hold hands, and the film ends.
Of late, Kevin Smith has become more commercial with films like Zack & Miri Make A Porno and the up coming A Couple of Dicks. Clerks II was successful as a sweet comedy but it failed to capture anything as vital as what was explored in Chasing Amy and Smith’s second best film, Dogma. Smith is not a true artist, but simply a true human being who cannot make each of his films meaningful. Rather he needs something personal that is worth sharing to emerge in his life, just as with Holden in Chasing Amy, who earlier in the movie says that he wants to tell more personal stories but as of yet has nothing personal to say. Hopefully Kevin Smith can find the inspiration he needs to make another great film, but until then I’ll have no problem with frequently returning to Chasing Amy.
The film succeeds because Smith doesn’t aim to look at other people or the world at large. Instead, he just picks apart himself, meticulously and bravely, dividing his feelings into multiple characters. This way, the film gains its accuracy and authenticity, and holds no pretensions. Chasing Amy is a masterpiece because of its rare and invaluable honesty, which turns something remarkably personal into something profoundly universal.
posted by adam cook