Chasing Amy (1997) – dir. Kevin Smith

I don’t think we’ll ever have films like the first three that Kevin Smith made in the 90’s. While John Hughes tried to articulate fringe suburban outcasts in the 80’s, and while mumblecore and Apatow lent a voice to post-slacker twentysomethings, none have felt as realized and honest as Smith’s. The aging Gen-X’ers of Kevin Smith’s View Askewniverse are the type of jaded nerds who might not have pocket protectors of Revenge of the Nerds, but are just as committed to trivial nonsense—and maybe even more so. For as much as these guys—who would lay the foundation for the millennial Libertarian subculture that would arise in the next couple decades—try to be above the fray, they’re not. Sure, these dudes have some compelling theories about Star Wars, or the nebulous sexuality of Archie Andrews, but they’re bogged down in their own fragile masculinity. No one got that better than Kevin Smith.

Chasing Amy makes for a neat, surprisingly self-reflexive bookend to a comic trilogy of frustrated beta masculinity—beginning with Clerks, and following Mallrats. As such, Chasing Amy is a romcom almost exclusively for guys. Here, Smith takes male vulnerability to uncomfortable, yet honest and groundbreaking places. Though, for as blunt as Chasing Amy is, Smith’s examination of insecurity and sexual fluidity is a dirty, hilarious, and deeply moving romantic comedy, as well as Smith’s career best.

Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck) is a comic book writer with his best friend Banky (Jason Lee). While attending a panel for their theatrics-prone friend Hooper (Dwight Ewell), Holden meets Hooper’s co-panelist Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams). From there, Chasing Amy seems pretty ordinary. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Conflict ensues. Can their relationship weather the storm? The caveat, of course, is that Alyssa is a lesbian, and Holden doesn’t know how to deal with her sexual history. This being Kevin Smith, we’re treated to dirty, but witty observations on this relationship, and some self-effacing commentary to boot.

Kevin Smith’s best films are the ones that feel as though Kevin Smith lived the lives of these characters. In fact, much of Chasing Amy is based on his own life—the thematic and emotional core of which is based on his romantic relationship between Smith and the film’s co-lead Adams. What’s most important about using a movie as a vehicle for one’s own experiences and philosophies, at least in Smith’s case, is that we’re not meant to be on Holden’s side. After all, Holden is a nice enough guy. Sure, he’s handsome—he’s played by Ben Affleck, who, even when frumpy, is still respectably handsome—he knows how to banter, and he’s doing okay for himself as a comic book artist. Holden is also the kind of guy who takes sex more seriously than he lets on. In an early scene between Alyssa and Holden, the two are playing darts while a young couple is making out on the hood of Banky’s car just outside. Holden posits that such a naked display of love is heartening, that he’s on those kids’ side. Alyssa counters that such an act is just sex, not love. Something ephemeral and solely physical. This philosophy of physicality and emotionality being separate is ultimately what drives the film. This is why Alyssa can supposedly “switch teams,” and what Holden struggles to understand throughout the film.

If the film does have any real flaws, the most glaring has to be the scene in which Holden declares his feelings for Alyssa. After months of an intense platonic relationship, Holden just has to let Alyssa know. The first half of the scene is a near-static close-up of Affleck spewing this contrived monologue that actually totally works. What he’s saying is hyperbolic and unoriginal, and is met with contempt. Alyssa would rather brave a heavy downpour and hitchhike back home than deal with someone as selfish as Holden. And then, she just changes her mind. The turn is not terribly justified. We see that the two are great friends, that they have lots in common, and that they may make a good couple, but the shift is so sudden. Smith skirts over the abruptness here. Later, when Holden and Alyssa are discussing why Alyssa decided to try being in a relationship with Holden, she says that she did so of her own volition. While the film certainly gives Alyssa plenty of agency, we don’t really get much in the way of perspective. The closest we get is a beat where Alyssa tells her friends that she’s dating a man, and she has to face the disappointment of her gay peers by herself. Perhaps Smith doesn’t want to brave territory he hasn’t experienced, but he demonstrates the type of restraint that holds back one of his main characters.

Maybe Smith just doesn’t care that much about Alyssa as a character. What he does care about is Holden and Banky. Banky is, in many ways, the Greek chorus. But his voice of impartiality is a guise for his own pent up aggression and possibly closeted sexuality. Yet, for all of his homophobic slander, and as openly hostile as he can be—going so far as to dig up dirt on Alyssa, as a means of driving her away—he’s not the antagonist of the story; Holden is. Take the aforementioned moment of Banky outing Alyssa as “Finger Cuffs:” A teenage girl the two heard of around the suburbs where Holden and Banky grew up, infamous for a threesome she had engaged in with two other boys. This sequence told in a flashback, of a former schoolmate explaining the incident to Banky, with the camera bobbing up and down as he conflates the narrative in question, is a fascinating directorial choice. Kevin Smith is hardly a cinematic stylist, but Chasing Amy suggests that, had he been more disciplined, he might’ve gone on to punctuate his stories with flourishes like this one. A more obvious, but effective segment is the confrontation of the aforementioned “Finger Cuffs” rumor. Holden, trying and failing to be subtle, presses Alyssa while the two are at a hockey game. The conversation is intercut with a couple of players brawling in the rink, ending with Alyssa shouting an admission to Holden, while one of the players lands knockout blow to another on the ice.

Alyssa loves Holden for Holden. Him being a man doesn’t mean anything, because that’s just physiology. This is why, to her, sex is such a non-factor. Yet, Holden can never wrap his head around Alyssa’s past. Holden is by no means the first man to punish a woman for her experience, and Smith is hardly the first to sew threads of sexual jealousy into his films—Sam Peckinpah and Alfred Hitchcock remain the scornful masters in this regard. Smith, instead, addresses this head on—quite literally, as he reprises his Silent Bob character in the third act to explain his own Alyssa. The rationale isn’t difficult. In western society, men are told to be alphas, to be conquerors. Women, in turn, are told to be submissive, compliant accessories to men. But if she can be with other men, why wouldn’t she want to be with other men other than Holden? As okay as Holden purports to be with audacious carnality, he only feels that way if he’s removed from the situation. In truth, Holden only sees Alyssa as a means of satisfying him, of being the key to his comfort and emotional security. Holden gets what he wants: Someone, despite their orientation, falling for him, and yet, Alyssa’s still somehow not enough. He’s a spoiled brat. The film knows this. Alyssa knows this. Kevin Smith especially knows this.

Chasing Amy ends, quite poignantly, with Holden writing a limited run comic about his relationship with Alyssa—a clear nod to the film being itself an apology to Joey Lauren Adams. Though Kevin Smith has gone on to do other projects, but even he admits that Chasing Amy, warts and all, is his greatest accomplishment. Aside from Clerks, nothing Smith has done feels as realized. Including Clerks, nothing Smith as done is remotely as personal. In a socially heated and fluctuating climate such as ours, Chasing Amy is a divisive film. At one time revelatory, nowadays dated in parts, and still surprisingly prescient. Smith doesn’t communicate some perfect treatise on modern expressions of sexuality. Instead, he’s doing his best to articulate his own messy, half-understood feelings about the messy, embarrassing, potentially devastating risk that is love. That sincerity and humility is, in the end, what makes Chasing Amy such an astounding little gem.

Rating – 9.7/10

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