Catch Her in the Rye

Kevin Smith is an impassioned jokester. The young writer-director double-whammies the audience by filling in his stick figures with thick brushstrokes. His first film, Clerks, was a no-budget goof featuring an entire miniature universe of slacker goons, but its main protagonist was a sweetly jerky lovelorn convenience store employee who pined for a lost girlfriend and just wanted to do right by everybody. Clerks certainly didn't signal the arrival of a major filmmaker, but despite the gross-outs and the dim noodling, it was disarmingly likable.

Mallrats, Smith's next film, was trounced by critics but -- leaving aside the inept slapstick -- had its likable moments too. Once again it focused on a lovelorn slacker, and you felt so close to him that you got the feeling Smith would have been very happy shucking the slapstick shenanigans and just bearing down on the love angle.

He gets his chance in Chasing Amy. Smith is hip to the emotional through-line in his movies; he seizes what was sweetest about his first two features -- the forlorn layabouts yearning to connect and turning themselves into goofballs -- and runs with it. The movie's title comes from a monologue delivered by Smith's Silent Bob (a recurring character in his films, along with Jason Mewes's stringy druggie Jay), who mourns the girl that got away. The film is about how much you're willing to give up for love, a tune that has been played many times before, but never with quite this much slacker brio.

The lovestruck wonder in Chasing Amy is Holden (Ben Affleck), who lives with his best friend Banky (Jason Lee) in central New Jersey. Creators of a popular comic book, Bluntman & Chronic, they have a riffy, laid-back partnership, like college dorm-mates who can't quite fathom buttoned-up adulthood. By calling his lead character Holden, Smith is, of course, tipping us off: Like Salinger's Holden Caulfield, Smith's Holden is a self-consciously cynical spotter of phonies who deep down is a romantic -- an innocent (in other words, an adolescent).

Holden may have the slouch and the grace of a slacker smoothie, but he's a babe in the woods when love clonks him on the head in the person of Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), the comic-book artist he falls for ... who happens to be gay. It takes a long time and a lot of "pseudodates," in Banky's sneering phrase, before Alyssa reorients her orientation and realizes she loves him too.

Smith doesn't pretend theirs is a neat commingling. Once enraptured, Holden can't quite believe Alyssa remains sexually unresponsive; he thinks she must be holding out on him. Alyssa, for her part, is flummoxed by her deepening feelings about him. When he finally breaks down and tells her he's in love, she's furious at first. For him to be in love is easy (she thinks), but for her it means completely upending her life.

Alyssa's turmoil probably won't register with certain gays in the audience, who may reject the film as heterosexual propaganda. (In the same way, some gay viewers rejected The Crying Game because the two men didn't get it on.) But Smith isn't playing out the old canard that lesbians are just women who haven't met the right guy; he's dealing with something more subtle and changeable here, and it's a disservice to Alyssa (and the actress who plays her) to slap a label on her.

The deepest joke in the movie is that Holden's life, not Alyssa's, turns out to be the one most upended. The upheaval starts when Banky turns into a hectoring chorus of doom and woe; he's like a jealous ex-suitor, and this response suggests a psychosexual dimension to the guys' guyness. (If I'm reading into this, then so is Smith, because he makes that dimension explicit later on.) Holden is not disrupted by Alyssa's lesbianism, because he interprets her love for him as a renunciation of her past. He's less threatened than inquisitive. His curiosity about her mating rituals is partly leering, but mostly it borders on anthropological. He's interested in what women do together, especially after he's secure in the notion that she's doing it only with him.

What eats away at Holden is not Alyssa's homosexual past but, as he discovers, her rowdy heterosexual past. He thought he was her first guy. It's a rich joke: Girls don't count, but guys do. Waving his double standard, Holden can't get around Alyssa's hetero promiscuity. It's the kind of promiscuity he can relate to, and condemn, because at least he understands it. Chasing Amy turns out to be a movie about a man who has to face up to his own square expectations. Holden is not as hip as he thought he was, or wants to be, and his attempts to salvage his love for Alyssa only make things messier. The film, in a way, is a mini tragedy, because Holden and Alyssa both care so much for each other. We want to see them connect, and they can't -- not quite. There's too much stuff in the way.

Chasing Amy wouldn't be so likable if the performers weren't. (All three leads appeared in Mallrats.) Smith has a clean, nothing-fancy visual style, but he knows how to set off his actors. In his previous features he had them speak in clipped cadences that made them sound like smart-alecky standups. He's slowed down the pace in Chasing Amy; his players sound recognizably human. Affleck has an easygoing charm that can contort into something shaggier and more unpredictable. Lee is a whiz at showing how Banky is wised up to everything but himself. Dwight Ewell plays swishy black cartoonist Hooper, who puts on an official face of black militancy at comic-book conventions; he's so good at the yin and yang of this character that you're never quite sure which of Hooper's guises is the pretender.

And Adams is remarkably good in the way she makes Alyssa comprehensible in her many modes: unflinching, cowed, slangy, soft-spoken, weathered, newborn. She seems to be going through her changes at the very moment we experience them. Adams, with her cracked babykins voice, bears a strong resemblance both to Renee Zellweger and to Cameron Diaz; but in terms of talent, she's all her own.

Chasing Amy.
Written and directed by Kevin Smith; with Ben Affleck, Jason Lee, Joey Lauren Adams, Dwight Ewell, Jason Mewes, and Kevin Smith.

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