Review: Chasing Amy

Chasing Amy (1997)
Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee, Dwight Ewell, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith. Written and directed by Kevin Smith.

It’s been nineteen years since Chasing Amy was in theaters, a realization that makes me ponder my mortality, but then everything makes me ponder my mortality nowadays. I wonder what it does to Smith, for whom this was the breakout film. In 1997, Smith was a known entity with a couple of well-received indie pictures under his belt, again operating on a tiny budget, again casting his childhood friends. But this film received a few meaningful recognitions, including a Golden Globe nomination for Joey Lauren Adams and awards-season nods from critics’ associations.

I look forward to revisiting Smith’s early work, now that I realize how long it’s been since I’ve seen most of his movies. He’s one of my favorite directors, greatly flawed in predictable ways but still fresh and creative in multiple other ways.

I watched Chasing Amy two weeks ago and again last week, and my biggest takeaway from these repeat viewings is that the stuff that was bad in the late Nineties is worse now, and the stuff that was good is even better.

I don’t think there are spoilers here, but if you haven’t seen it and would rather know very little going in, skip this bulleted section.
I was looking to see a few things with fresher eyes, here’s what I came up with.

  • Holden McNeil, the main character played by Affleck, is as tone deaf as I remembered, a doofus who gets unreasonably upset about something he learns about his lover’s past. Not only does he overreact to the initial discovery, but he confronts her about it in the most juvenile way, and then his proposed solution to the mess he creates is bizarre at best. It’s idiotic and implausible at worst. It is the film’s greatest flaw, and one I have difficulty getting past. Main characters are allowed to make mistakes, but when they’re just idiots, mistakes just look like idiocy.
  • I had reservations about Alyssa’s getting together with Holden, the premise on which the film is constructed. This time around, I like it a lot more. Alyssa explains that she’s come to this point where she makes her own decisions about love and sex, and she’s going to love whoever she wants. This character doesn’t just need a Ben Affleck to come along and make her see the error of her lesbian ways. This is a strong, smart statement she makes (more than once) about owning her sex and articulating this ownership in clear, multi-layered arguments.
  • The Jay and Silent Bob scene is still the best part of the film, and some of Smith’s best writing in any of his movies. Smith, Affleck, and Jason Mewes deliver the lines so well that when the film was over this most recent time I saw it, I went back and watched the scene five more times.
  • I’d forgotten about Dwight Ewell as comic book artist Hooper X. He’s a great character, and I wish he’d returned in later Smith films.

Joey Lauren Adams as Alyssa Jones gets props for some good acting, but she quickly gets the emoting up to ten, so that there’s nowhere for her to go in her extended scenes. It makes Affleck look low-energy in some of the film’s most critical scenes.

Chasing Amy has always been the most normal of the Askewniverse pictures, and it’s easy to see why it received more mainstream praise than its predecessors. Smith deserves it: he puts his funny, talky characters in normal settings with normal circumstances, and the translation works a lot better than one might predict. The problem is that his main characters, played by Ben Affleck and Jason Lee, are morons who never really redeem themselves, making them difficult to like.

Some of this normalcy is also a problem. There are at least two music video scenes to show the passing of time and the developing of relationships, and there are at least two scenes on playground swings, a device that was old and tired even in 1997. These bad clichés of normality are especially notable because Smith gives us some of the good, creative stuff we don’t see in fifteen other movies, like conversation in a comic book convention, or a group of friends stuffing envelopes while they accuse Alyssa of being scarce lately, or the (common now but fresh then) front shot of two guys talking while they play a video game against each other, both staring straight ahead as they focus on the television.

Smith includes one of his signature moves: the low-angle shot of someone animatedly telling a long, crude story. It’s another highlight for me, the kind of thing that almost excuses an extremely heavy-handed pivotal scene in an ice rink, where the action in a hockey game is meant to illustrate the dialogue between Holden and Alyssa in the stands. It’s awful, but at least it’s creative.

Put that all together, and it’s a likeable but not loveable movie, one with great scenes you want to look at on repeat, and scenes you kind of hope you never have to see again.


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