Monday, June 18, 2012

Chasing Amy Movie Review: From My Collection

At some point in my adult life I had to come to the sad conclusion, completing my disillusionment, that Kevin Smith is a much better writer than director. In fact, he doesn’t make very good movies. Clerks succeeds because it was all of a time and place: a scrappy little independent low budget film that had some very funny bits. His follow up was not well-received by anyone, but in 1997 Chasing Amy was something of a revelation. At the time I thought it was just about the perfect romantic comedy. Watching it again now for the first time in many years I still think it’s got some wonderful dialogue, keen relationship insights and still sets the bar for the genre, but I recognize how shoddy the filmmaking is.

I’m not the biggest fan of Ben Affleck as an actor and I do think he is the weak link in an otherwise very well cast film, but he is mostly convincing as the sick and in love Holden McNeil, creator of a popular comic book known as “Bluntman and Chronic,” a superhero duo based on Smith’s recurring characters Jay and Silent Bob. Holden’s business partner and childhood best friend is Banky Edwards, played by Jason Lee, who made a huge impression on me when I first saw this film 15 years ago. He has continued to turn out strong performances for both indies and Hollywood films alike.

Their friendship and partnership is threatened by the arrival on the scene of the adorable and lovable Alyssa Jones. Her perfectly-coiffed blonde hair, stylish manner of dress, and snappy remarks draw Holden in for a love-at-first-sight moment, which is related to, but not exactly the same as a Meet Cute. Her own comic book is a romance series called “Idiosyncratic Routine,” and serves to round out her character as a mushy romantic idealist. Holden, in spite of his friendship with the brash and crude Banky, is also a romantic at heart. These two are a destined pair…until he finds out she’s gay.

Smith has been faulted for writing a romantic story in which a gay character chooses to get involved in a relationship with a member of the opposite sex. I can understand why this looks offensive on the surface and in most cases I’d probably join the chorus of naysayers. After all, to present a gay character who ends up in a hetero relationship is to suggest that being gay is a choice, one which the safe and cuddly lesbian is willing to undo when the right man turns up. Smith overcomes that with a satisfyingly convincing explanation for why Alyssa gets together with Holden. It’s sweet and mushy, but rather plausible if you believe, like I do, that sexuality is not necessarily a one or the other dichotomy, but a spectrum with lots of gray areas. In a scene that reveals Holden to be rather ignorant, or at least very traditional, in his thinking about virginity and sexuality, Alyssa explains that girls feel right for her, just as they do for Holden. But Smith’s writing and Adams’ performance excel at convincing the audience that this particular man (after a well-developed friendship) can feel right too.

The friction comes from Banky, whose jealousy of Alyssa leads him to find some dirt in her past that gets Holden thinking, well, like a young man. When he learns that she has a sexual past he’s not ready to deal with he becomes, as his friend Hooper (Dwight Ewell) explains to him, the epitome of men who like to think of themselves as Marco Polo being the first to explore new lands, so to speak. It feels like Smith really latches onto something innate within the male psyche. He’s ventured here before with the whole “37” thing in Clerks, but it’s the focal point of conflict in Chasing Amy and it’s something that I believe very easily and very unnecessarily gets in the way of some relationship. That Alyssa is not completely honest about her past, or allows Holden to go on believing something that isn’t true, is entirely believable given how crazy she is about him. She delivers a devastating speech to him summing up why her past belongs to her and is no one else’s business while at the same time expressing her feelings for him and trying to make him feel like he is both right and wrong. The writing of this speech is among the best in movies when it comes to the basic conflicts that many new couples find themselves in and Adams’ delivery, with her high-pitched raspy voice, is perfect.

As well written as the film is, it has major setbacks in technical areas. Chasing Amy was still a very low budget movie, made for a reported $250K. But the lighting of many scenes is off and feels unnatural. I recall how well Robert Rodriguez lit El Mariachi using only two work lamps and a budget of $8,000. Smith and his producer Scott Mosier are not entirely up the task of properly editing a film. It’s a sloppy job and another job for which they might have gotten better results hiring Rodriguez.

Where the film falters most is in its conclusion. Smith wants to believe that Holden’s decision on how to handle his problems with both Alyssa and Banky is true to character, but it’s so forehead-slappingly idiotic I’ve always had a hard time buying into it. In 1997 I just thought it was a stupid idea of Holden’s. Now I think it’s a stupid idea of Smith’s. Still, nothing can take away from the crispness of the dialogue and the fact that Smith gets to the heart of what makes some relationships tick in a way that most romantic comedies would never bother with. Most people want the simple and cute problems, a breezy romance with a conflict that begs an easy resolution at the end of which everyone walks away satisfied. Others prefer something a little more honest. And that, if nothing else, is what Smith delivers.

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