'Amy' an intoxicating mix of pain, humor Review: Director Smith's continuing, funny story of real life in N.J. should get his career back on the turnpike.

April 18, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

In the movie "Chasing Amy," Amy isn't the real quarry; it's the director's soul. Its existence was in grave doubt.

Kevin Smith broke on the scene three years ago with a bitingly funny little movie about life in the convenience stores of the place you have to go through to get to New York (I think it's called New Jersey). It was named "Clerks," and it made him a big thing.

Next, he made a movie called "Mallrats," with actual movie stars and a budget in the millions, though it was also set in the place you have to go through to get to New York; it was a dog. It almost ended his career. Frankly, it should have ended his career. It even bombed in New Jersey.

Now here's the career rebound of the century: "Chasing Amy." That's the good news. And here's the bad news: We're still in New Jersey.

This one follows as a young, rather successful (if self-hating, self-loathing, self-lacerating, self-mutilating) comic artist falls in love with the perfect woman. Then he meets her girlfriend. Then his best friend really gets nasty.

It's one of those what-fresh-hell-is-this? deals, in which a very good thing turns into a very complicated thing and everybody's feelings get rubbed raw, but their pain doesn't prevent them from quipping at the Wimbledon-finals level. Smith shows the grasp of character and offbeat humor that really registered in "Clerks," and a subtler mastery of film fluidity and professionalism than anything in the cheesy, amateurish "Mallrats." (I really hated that movie.)

This movie is about something: not merely the immediate confusion of a desperately powerful but subtly miswired

relationship, but also the ramifications of such on that miasma called "the rest of your life."

Holden (amiable Ben Affleck) is a minor star on the comic firmament with his book "Bluntman and Chronic," which is lettered and colored by his good friend Banky (Jason Lee, humorously irritating). The two have a relationship so intense it's beyond friendship; few marriages attain as complex a mesh of love-hate, need-despise, admire-contempt as this one. So when Holden meets another comic artist, Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams), and falls in love with her, the issue isn't chasing her, it's escaping Banky.

When she turns out to be gay -- semi, sort-of, maybe not entirely committed but still gay -- that confuses the two guys even more. Confusion, hurt, pain and, yes, more confusion: That sums up the movie, which isn't an orchestration of events so much as an orchestration of feelings. These boys and girls spat and spit, fight and flee, brood and whine just like the people in the next apartment. They're a lot funnier, unless you live in a great neighborhood.

The final irony is nicely conceived: Holden, it seems, can forgive Amy her flirtation with lesbianism, but when he finds out that she had a sexually adventurous past with -- ick! -- New Jersey boys, that just about drives him over the edge.

Affleck and Lee have a great comic thing going on. Their relationship is really the core of the movie: If you don't believe it, then none of the motivation for the cranks and twists of heart and fortune that follow will make any sense at all. As for Adams, she's a find. She looks a little like Drew Barrymore, but she can act.

And longtime fans of Smith will be pleased at this bit of riveting news: Silent Bob talks. Silent Bob, an impassive, perpetually stoned doper who appeared in Smith's first two films, finally opens his mouth to deliver an eloquent defense of forgiveness in love. You wonder if he's now getting on better with the director, and then you look at the press notes and you realize: He is the director.

'Chasing Amy'

Starring Ben Affleck, Jason Lee and Joey Lauren Adams

Directed by Kevin Smith

XTC Released by Miramax

Rated R (sexual material)

Sun score: ***

Pub Date: 4/18/97

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