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Chasing Amy (1997)

August 22nd, 2008 · 4 Comments

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Synopsis
Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck) and Banky Edwards (Jason Lee) – two guys from Highlands, New Jersey who made good self-publishing their own comic book – bust up the convention they’re signing copies of their work Bluntman and Chronic at when they seem to outrage Black militant cartoonist Hooper X (Dwight Ewell) arguing that Lando Calrissian was a positive Black role model. Hooper’s “militancy” is revealed privately to be a facade to sell more comic books, as well as hide the fact that he’s gay. He invites the boys to stay in New York to have a drink with him and perky cartoonist Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams).

The hopeful Holden gets to know Alyssa – a cynic when it comes to love – over darts. He’s attracted to her, and gladly skips out of work early the next day to bump into her at a club Hooper tells him she’ll be at. It dawns on Holden and Banky too late that they’re the only straight guys in the crowd, and that Alyssa is a lesbian. While Holden is stunned, Banky is fascinated by Alyssa’s sex life (“How can a girl fuck another girl? Are you talking strap-ons or something?”) and trades stories with her. Alyssa likes Holden enough to seek him out and extend to him her friendship.

The more time Holden and Alyssa spend together, the more threatened Banky becomes. He forecasts there’s no way his pal will ever sleep with Alyssa, but after she buys him a painting off a restaurant wall, Holden pours his heart out to her. The couple gives romance a shot, alienating Alyssa’s lesbian friends. Banky fills Holden’s head with so many wild rumors about Alyssa’s past, he grows insecure and pushes his girlfriend away. After an encounter with a pair of whimsical dope peddlers named Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith), Holden realizes his mistake, and hatches a novel solution to his problems with Alyssa and Banky.

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Production history
Kevin Smith was at the Sundance Film Festival with his debut feature Clerks in January 1994 when he met director Rose Troche and her ex-girlfriend Guinevere Turner, who co-wrote and starred in a movie they were promoting at Park City, Go Fish. Due in part to the similarities between their two films, Smith – along with his producer Scott Mosier – struck up a friendship with the women. Turner recalled, “I would drag Rose over to their condo, and we’d have endless conversations. We really got along and learned probably too much about each other.”

Mosier later admitted to harboring a crush on Turner. By the time his sophomore effort Mallrats was in post-production in the summer of 1995, Smith had a title for his next script – Chasing Amy – and began with the idea of a straight guy falling in love with a lesbian. The filmmaker also wanted to comment on his state of the union with girlfriend Joey Lauren Adams, who Smith had cast in Mallrats and discovered how much more experienced she was in relationships after they started dating. Smith finished writing Chasing Amy within a couple of months and approached Miramax to finance the film’s intended $2 to $3 million budget.

The studio liked the script and asked which actors Smith was thinking of casting. The director wanted two unknown players from Mallrats – Ben Affleck and Jason Lee – cast opposite Joey Lauren Adams, who was even less of a box office draw. Miramax countered with Jon Stewart, David Schwimmer and Drew Barrymore. Smith dug in. “They said, ‘It’s not about making a movie with your friends.’ And I said yes it is, it’s absolutely about making a movie with your friends.” Smith slashed his budget to $250,000, shooting on Super 16mm film stock, but maintaining full creative control.

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Released April 1997, not every critic fell in love with the picture; Eric Brace at the Washington Post quipped, “The words ‘written and directed by Kevin Smith’ are now an instruction to run very fast out of the theater.” But raves were given by the New York Times, the L.A. Times, Roger Ebert and Time Magazine, where Richard Schickel called Chasing Amy, “A true movie rarity: a brutally honest romance. If you loved Sleepless in Seattle, you’ll just hate it.” The no-budget film grossed $12 million in the U.S., establishing Smith as a voice of his generation.

Opinion
Other viewers have called Chasing Amy the worst movie – next to Armageddon – ever preserved on DVD by the Criterion Collection. They have a point. Student films look more professional, while Smith’s inadequacies as a director extend to the casting of Joey Lauren Adams, who on top of her limitations as an actor is also given a musical number. Chasing Amy not only survives its own scruffiness, but blossoms with it, painting a portrait of male/female relationships in the 1990s that’s raw, at times uneven, but exhilarating in the creativity of its dialogue and openness of its characters.

Chasing Amy
achieves classic status for its audacious screenplay, which explores sexual and racial insecurities so plainly and without hypocrisy that it would be sent to sensitivity training if circulated today. The raunchy dialogue is balanced by characters confronting something deeper and less glib about their natures. Just as important, the film is laugh out loud funny, with Jason Lee ripping Smith’s material up. Ben Affleck gave a skillful leading man performance, while Smith should be commended for refusing to soft pedal relationships, ending the film on a bittersweet note, but one that’s perfect for this story.

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Matthew Dessem at The Criterion Contraption writes, “Chasing Amy is second only to Armageddon when it comes to discussions of films that don’t really deserve to be part of the Criterion Collection. I see where people are coming from, but I think you can make a case for it now that you couldn’t when the DVD was released in 2000. In addition to being a time capsule from the mid-nineties in terms of what’s on screen, Chasing Amy also represents a pivotal moment in the film industry. The movie came out towards the end of the time that people thought of ‘independent film’ as a sensibility, rather than a financing model.”

“Kevin Smith is a fairly easy director to pigeonhole; a fantastic dialogue writer, a poor visual artist and a man who is truly obsessed with Star Wars and comic books. His films tend to include shockingly raunchy jokes, although little actual sex or nudity, but they also contain many surprisingly moving or affecting moments. Chasing Amy is perhaps his best film to date, an award-winning examination of male dysfunction that still manages to be frequently gut-bustingly funny,” writes Alexander Larman at DVD Times.

Bradley Null at filmcritic.com writes, “Going well beyond other Gen X movies such as Swingers and Reality Bites, Chasing Amy embraces the new generation with an unparalleled frankness. Although this boy-meets-lesbian love story is more mature than Smith’s earlier work, its never before seen subject matter is indicative of Smith’s predilection for ignoring the taboos of film. Frank discussions of sex and perversion are common in Smith’s world of wordy, quick-paced diatribes long on profanity … Although the intermittent stupidity and vulgarity of Smith’s characters is sometimes painful to watch, the film’s refreshing realism is an invaluable experience.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Cult favorite · Famous line · Unconventional romance

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Moviezzz // Aug 23, 2008 at 3:42 pm

    Great review.

    This is a film that, for a while, I loved. I saw it twice theatrically (and I rarely see a film more than once). And I’d watch the Criterion laserdisc more than most others in my collection. I haven’t watched it since DVD though.

    That said, I always HATED Holden’s idea of how to save his relationship with his two friends. I never bought it and it always bothered me.

    There was a very famous FILM THREAT review that said it sounded like it was written by someone who had never talked to a woman before. I might agree with that. The review was famous because Smith called out the reviewer of it when the reviewer was hosting a Q&A with him.

    Still, it is my favorite Kevin Smith film.

  • 2 Daniel // Aug 26, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    Can’t…stand…Joey Lauren Adams’ voice…

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Aug 26, 2008 at 5:54 pm

    Moviezzz: My appreciation of Chasing Amy as independent film perfection has settled the older I’ve gotten, but I still think it’s a really, really good movie. The fact that Smith is attacking critics more than anybody else short of Uwe Boll tells me he feels his work is unable to really stand on its own. That said, this is my favorite film of his as well and despite its flaws, I appreciate its brutal honesty, which is something you just do not see in comedies any more. The last actor to even say “faggot” was sent off to sensitivity training. Ah, the 1990s. Thanks for commenting!

    Daniel: I will remain diplomatic and say that perhaps Joey Lauren Adams found her calling as a director. Come Early Morning was pretty good, especially for a first effort.

  • 4 AR // Sep 18, 2008 at 11:58 am

    One of the rare films in which I could stand Affleck in a lead role. Been ages since I’ve seen this. I really liked it. It’s hard not to appreciate honest and realistic romantic comedies. Smith is so inconsistent, though, and so grossly overrated by his fanbase.

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