Chasing Amy (1997)

A review by Jeffrey Overstreet

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Written and directed by Kevin Smith; director of photography, David Klein; edited by Mr. Smith and Scott Mosier; production designer, Robert Holtzman; music by David Pirner; produced by Mr. Mosier; released by Miramax Films. Running time: 105 minutes. This film is rated R.

STARRING: Ben Affleck (Holden), Joey Lauren Adams (Alyssa), Jason Lee (Banky), Dwight Ewell (Hooper), Jason Mewes (Jay) and Kevin Smith (Silent Bob).

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Kevin Smith’s third film is his first important work. Mallrats was a mildly diverting comedy; Clerks was a clever exploration of the language of Generation X. Chasing Amy is a revealing exploration of that same generation’s muddled views on relationships and sex.

But if you can stomach the way these characters communicate with a limited and profane vocabulary, and if you can endure their obsession with talk about sexual technique in promiscuous relationships, you will find something much deeper at the heart of this story. Smith’s characters talk the talk of their time, but his themes are timeless and universal. And believe it or not, Smith, who openly professes Christian faith (albeit a rather unconventional variety), he shows a deep compassion for characters who seem hell-bent on out-cussing each other.

In this world, sex is casual activity between searchers, and the search for a serious soul mate becomes confusing, dangerous, and seemingly hopeless. What Smith seems to be getting at is this: No matter who you are, you’ve made embarrassing mistakes, and you’re carrying baggage that would make you undesirable to most people. But if we are going to hope to connect, to find the beauty in each other, we must learn to carry each other’s baggage.

And Alyssa has a lot of baggage.

Alyssa (Joely Lauren Adams) is a tough-talking lesbian who carries her sexual preference like a flag, sizing people up by their reactions to her choices, able to take the worst kind of insults without blinking and then dish it right back with a vengeance. She’s been hurt badly by life, by bad parents, by high school boys, and in response she’s hurt herself even worse. Nothing you could say to her would do her further harm. But spend a little time with her, and beyond the brazen sensuality and the foul mouth, there’s a damaged heart and a quest for meaningful connection.

Holden (Ben Affleck), a comic book artist, is our “hero.” He and his partner Banky (Jason Lee) have developed a popular comic book series in which they take the likenesses of people they know and turn them into superheroes. Comics give them a world  where they can live out their fantasies. Their comic book work becomes an interesting metaphor for the way in which we idealize others, seeing them as one-dimensional, what-you-see-is-what-you-get. One of the clever devices Smith employs is to introduce us to the inspirations for their comic book characters later in the film, and what comical oafs they turn out to be.

But Holden is ready to do something more than just superhero comics. He wants to write something heavier, more meaningful. And in his life too, he’s presented with an opportunity to do something meaningful, something hard, something that will make a difference. When he falls head over heels for Alyssa, he doesn’t yet know that she’s a lesbian. But when he finds out, what will he do? Will he run? Will he let her sexual experiences scare him away? And what if, in spite of her well-known homosexuality, she decides to try going out with him?

Smith’s characters are as profane in their conversation and behavior as any characters in any movie you’ve ever seen. It’s interesting; most people over 30 have a hard time stomaching the talk in the corners of the smoky gay bars in this film. But those under 30, a lot of them anyway, seem familiar with such behavior. It’s familiar to me. Even attending Christian schools my whole life, I remember listening in on long conversations like this.

This is, folks, believe it or not, the way a lot of young people in this country talk. Not all young people, but more than you might think.

Parents, this stuff will probably not surprise your kids. These characters may not be easy to listen to, but they get right to the point about what they’ve learned in their sexual experimentations. It’s a sort of test: If you’re going to take me seriously, you’ve got to be able to hear the brutal truth of what goes on in my head, what I’m made of. In a way, it’s a relief, because they wear their flaws on their sleeves rather than covering their lusts in sticky sentimental romanticism. By including such realism in his movie, Smith makes a strong connection with a lot of his audience, which gives him room to speak truth to them where other artists would be quickly dismissed.

The characters also talk endlessly about the other subjects that obsess them: the Star Wars trilogy, television, and countless other pop culture phenomena. Smith isn’t afraid of following tangents until the scenes surprise us with something. A flamboyantly gay black man puts on the guise of a tough talking race-issues leader at a comics convention and concocts a mind-blowing theory about how Star Wars has a racist agenda. It’s one of the funniest scenes in the film.

I find it heartening that Smith is making movies that this audience will relate to, but that also prod them out from behind their audacious facades and into a bigger world of tough choices, of bearing each other’s burdens, of learning to love each other in spite of the damage that’s been done before. When Holden takes a deep breath and then declares his love for Alyssa, it’s not the stuff of fluffy romantic comedies. It’s life-or-death serious stuff. It’s one of the most intense scenes between two characters I’ve ever seen. In spite of their trivial pursuits and their immature choices so far in the film, suddenly it becomes a very mature drama. And you can feel that same tension in your gut that you would feel if you were Holden, making your heart vulnerable, knowing that all the odds are against you.

And as the film progresses, these powerful passions direct the plot into stranger and stranger territory, until you’re laughing at how bizarre things have become. But you’re still riveted by Holden, Alyssa, and Banky as they try to figure out how to connect in a meaningful way with each other. They’re clumsy, and they probably won’t figure it out without hurting each other.

But at least they’re trying. Smith has given his audience, however limited that might be, an important movie about some young people lost in the labyrinth of Generation X who are really going to give it a try, who are going to risk their hearts to find some kind of answer. And if that answer has something to do with love, something to do with grace, something to do with forgiveness… I think that’s a good thing. However ugly and messed-up their starting place, these characters are moving in the right direction.

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