A long time ago, I read an interview with Kevin Smith in an issue of WIZARD magazine. In the interview, Smith made several disparaging remarks about Jack "King" Kirby. Longtime readers of this blog know that Kirby is my all-time favorite comic book artist. I took umbrage at what Smith said and vowed to never see or read anything with his name on it.
As Batman once said, "things change."
I've watched and, for the most part, enjoyed many episodes of COMIC BOOK MEN, the show that stars Smith and his comic shop buddies on AMC. And I did finally see one of his films, the god-awful COP OUT (2010), a staggeringly routine cop-buddy comedy starring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan. I'm still not overly impressed with Smith but I no longer hold a petty (and utterly pointless) grudge against him.
Still, I haven't been exposed to the work that more or less put him on the cinematic map. That is, until yesterday, when I watched CHASING AMY (1997), Smith's third film after his smash hit debut CLERKS (1994) and MALLRATS (1995). CHASING AMY, the third film in what's referred to as the "Jersey trilogy", is a romantic comedy in which comic book artist Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck, (DAREDEVIL (2003), Superman in HOLLYWOODLAND (2006) and soon to be Batman in BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016)) meets and falls in love with another comic book artist, Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams). But there's a catch. She's a lesbian.
The two soon become friends but it's obvious that Holden is deeply in love with Alyssa, much to the chagrin of his comic book co-creator and life long friend Banky Edwards (Jason Lee). Holden finally admits his feelings to Alyssa and, after first denying him, Alyssa admits her feelings for him. They sleep together and begin a passionate relationship, only to have an incident from Alyssa's past create a major problem for Holden.
CHASING AMY plays heavily on the adolescent male fantasy of being the one guy who could make an attractive gay woman change her sexual preferences and make love to a man. The language is unbelievably coarse, vulgar and crude but it's the way young men talk and that's something that Smith gets right. And credit to Smith for avoiding a Hollywood style happy ending with a bittersweet final scene.
But the trouble here is Smith himself. Like that other boy wonder of '90s cinema, Quentin Tarantino, Smith is in love with his own words. CHASING AMY suffers from being incredibly over-written. Dialogue is the only thing propelling the narrative here and there's a lot of it. Some of it is genuinely funny, some of it is very moving, especially the lines given to Adams, who delivers the best performance in the film. But much of what the characters say sounds like lines written by a screenwriter. The dialogue sounds contrived in some scenes and it's simply not the way people talk in real life.
Like Tarantino, Smith is a virtual one man band, serving as writer, director and actor here. There's no one to tell him (or QT) to cut something here, add something there, this scene works, this scene doesn't. He's in complete creative control and while his intentions may be good, what he puts on the screen could benefit greatly from a critical assessment given by another pair of eyes (or two).
CHASING AMY is also one of the most visually static films I've ever seen. Smith frames everything in a locked down, medium shot and, rather than moving his camera, he simply cuts from first character to second character back to first character over and over again. It's like watching a tennis match. I hate tennis.
When Smith does finally move his camera, the results are liberating, thrilling and refreshing. At first I thought the rigid, formal compositions, medium focal length and locked down camera was a deliberate attempt to replicate the old 9-panel static grid of a comic book page (since this film is about comic book creators). But I soon realized what was really going on.
Smith was operating on a very limited budget ($250,000), with probably a small crew and a limited amount of time in which to make the film. In order to operate at maximum efficiency he chose to do one camera set up at a time, get all of those scenes shot and then switch to another set up, shoot all of those scenes, and move on. Camera set ups take time and money. I know. I've been on a film set and seen how long it takes to set up just a few short shots. So, Smith's visual choices are as much economic as they are artistic, at least, in my opinion.
Smith also gives himself the key moment in the film in which he explains the meaning of "chasing Amy", since there's no character by that name in the film. Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith) are a stoner Greek chorus (okay, duet) who show up in a third act meeting with Holden. It's Bob who breaks his silence and reveals the secret. It's semi-profound and the rest of the film turns on what he tells Holden but I can't help but believe that the information could have been given by some other character rather than Silent Bob. It seems incredibly self-indulgent on Smith's part.
The scenes in the film that actually deal with comic books, conventions, meeting with studio executives (a Matt Damon cameo), working at the drawing board, inane arguments about Archie's real sexual preferences, a gay black comic book creator, Hooper X (Dwight Ewell) exhibiting a rabid, "hate honky" persona in public and when interacting with a young fan, are good and ring true. I would have liked to have seen an entire movie focused more on the world of comic books than a straight/gay love story.
There are those who say that CHASING AMY is one of Smith's best films. It's the film in which he showed some maturity and depth and began to rely less on dick and fart humor (although there's plenty of that on display here). That may be so to those who have seen all of Smith's films and are more familiar with his body of work than I am.
CHASING AMY is not a bad movie. It's an honest effort to show how messy and painful love can be between two people be they straight, gay or whatever. I give Smith credit for trying something different and making the best film he could at the time given the resources he had to work with. CHASING AMY is an uneven, sometimes awkward film. But it's compelling, funny and interesting and definitely worth seeing at least once.