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CHASING AMY

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee, Dwight Ewell
Director:  Kevin Smith
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  113 Minutes
Release Date:  June 13, 2000

Film ***1/2

Chasing Amy is a film I treasure.  I became an instant fan of writer/director Kevin Smith when I saw his first movie, the $27,000 black and white uproarious comedy Clerks.  It was a film that went on to garner a loyal audience for whom the movie was Bible truth, and gave Smith a chance at a big budgeted Hollywood picture.

That second film, Mallrats, didn’t pan out financially.  It was a terrifically funny film, but perhaps a little less focused than Clerks had been.  It also seemed that mainstream audiences weren’t quite ready for Smith’s acerbic wit and observations about twenty-something slackers.  The movie would eventually find its audience in subsequent video releases and recoup its costs, but Smith, who has been quoted as saying he hates to lose money for anybody, took it as a cue to return to filmmaking with a more modest budget.

Thus, from the $7 million fiasco of Mallrats, Smith wrote and directed the third film in his “Jersey Trilogy”, the $200,000 Chasing Amy.  It was a return to a more grass roots style of movie making for Smith, but it also boldly went into newer and stronger directions.  Sure, it was just as funny as you would expect from him.  But what I didn’t expect when I saw the movie for the first time was the amazing sense of drama Smith brought to his story and characters.  He created a love story that was not only comical, but one of the most frank and honest I’d ever seen on the screen, with moments that were so beautiful and powerful that I’ve never forgotten them.  Moments that worked so well because they weren’t about a filmmaker flexing his artistic muscles.  They grew out of real scenarios and real emotions, from some very real characters.

Holden (Affleck) and Banky (Lee) are long time best friends, roommates, and partners in a successful comic book venture, Bluntman and Chronic (based on the Jay and Silent Bob characters, who show up for a key appearance later in the film).  Everything seems to be smooth sailing for the two, until the arrival of a girl in their lives:  fellow comic book artist Alyssa (Adams).  But this isn’t the typical love triangle you might expect.  Alyssa is a lesbian.  (In a scene that closely mimics Jaws, Banky and Alyssa compare injuries they’ve both accrued from being with women).

She’s pretty, smart, and fun to be with, and soon, she and Holden become fast friends, but complications are just around the corner:  Holden begins to fall in love with her.  Despite her sexual orientation, he finds in her everything he’s ever wanted in a girl.  The obvious complications don’t help, nor does Banky’s mounting incense and frustration over Holden’s attentiveness toward Alyssa.

In an unforgettable scene, one where you could have heard a pin drop from the film going crowd, Holden finally breaks down and confesses his feelings to Alyssa, which opens up even bigger cans of worms.  And Smith, recognizing that love is exceptionally fragile when prejudices are lined up against it, doesn’t take the obligatory romance movie route of marching his characters towards an inevitable happy ending.  Rather…and this is the genius of Smith…he almost makes it seem as though his characters have their own choice in the matter:  rise above, or fall flat.  They make their choices, and the consequences follow.

If there is a flaw in the film, for me, it’s a scene near the end:  an attempt at a resolution between the three main characters that just doesn’t ring true.  Every time I see the film, I get a different reaction from it, but none of them are good.  Sometimes I cringe.  Sometimes I chuckle.  Many times I just feel a little sad and hurt that we’ve followed these people down a twisting and complex road of love, pain, and anger only to end up where it did.  I can’t help but wonder sometimes if Smith has a problem with resolutions.  If you’ve ever seen the original ending of Clerks, you realize just how bad one of his ideas for an ending can be.  Mallrats had a finale involving a goofy game show rip-off, which didn’t matter much because of the carefree comical attitude of the film.  Even Dogma tends to throw me off track in the final stretch.  In all fairness to Smith and Chasing Amy though, the derailment is only temporary.  It finds the track again in time to end on a solid, thoughtful note.

I feel like I’m doing injustice to Smith’s comedy, which is as plentiful as you might expect—simply subservient to the drama in this film.  My favorite touch is Dwight Ewell as Hooper X—a gay black man who assumes a tough, militant posture in public to sell his comic book, White Hating Coons.  He’s a funny, insightful, and even slightly sympathetic character as chief observer to the plight of Holden and Alyssa.  There’s also a discussion he has with Banky over the sexual orientation of Archie and Jughead that has to be heard to be believed!

And, of course, the obligatory appearance of Jay and Silent Bob (Mewes and Smith), who show up in all of Smith’s films.  This movie features their shortest on screen appearance, but one of their most memorable, as Silent Bob offers some words of wisdom on Holden’s relationship scenario, “chasing Amy”.  And, of course, Smith fans can look for the bonus references to his other films, and even delight to a Spike Lee styled shot that takes place in front of the Quick Stop store, the primary setting for Clerks.

Chasing Amy went on to become one of the most profitable films of 1997—having such a low production cost left lots of space for pure profit (see:  The Blair Witch Project), but it should also be remembered as one of the most important.  It proves, as have many other successful indie films of the 90’s, that with a clear vision, smart script and good acting, you don’t need to blow millions to make a strong, intelligent, honest, and unforgettable movie.

Video ***

With Kevin Smith’s return to a more low-budget style of filmmaking, the visuals in this movie aren’t quite as good as his major studio project, Mallrats…however, that’s no fault of this Criterion transfer, which is actually quite good.  The movie suffers from a bit of spotting and debris noticeable on the film itself, and for the most part, shots don’t seem to have been constructed with specific attention to coloring or image detail…it’s a straightforward storytelling style of filmmaking.  For the most part, though, coloring is very good and natural and images are sharp and clear, and there certainly are no complaints about compression artifacts or undue graininess or other image problems.  This anamorphic transfer was also produced under the supervision of cinematographer David Klein.  All in all, a very satisfactory effort.

Audio ***

This is a dialogue oriented movie, so one shouldn’t expect too much from a 5.1 mix:  most of the multi channel use comes from the score and songs, which project loudly and clearly using both front and rear stages.  The aforementioned dialogue is always clean and clear, however, and mostly from the forward channels.  There’s not much in the way of discreet signals for effects, but that’s because of the nature of the film, not the audio transfer.  The .1 channel again is mostly used for the music, giving it a little more depth to the bottom end.  Again, a fine representation of a film that uses its technology modestly.

Features ****

What a package!  For those of you familiar with Criterion’s laser disc release of this title, you get it all here, too, including a special DVD intro from Kevin Smith.  He dryly tells you that if you bought the DVD after buying the LD version, “you’ve been hoarked”, and also makes a formal apology for his…er, famous sound byte on the commentary track, which was recorded for the laser disc and where he states, “F—k DVD”.  Don’t be too mad at him for that, though, because in his new intro, he admits he was wrong and even confesses to owning and loving a DVD player now, so he’s seen the light.  The rest of the commentary track, which features Smith, Ben Affleck, Jason Mewes, editor Scott Mosier and others, is a terrific listen:  funny and informative.  If you’ve listened to other commentary tracks by Smith and crew, you know they tend to be anything-goes sessions.  There are ten deleted scenes and outtakes, which are pretty much all good, or at least interesting, with each one introduced by Smith and one or two of his comrades.  There is a guide to all the characters in the Jersey trilogy in booklet form, and a trailer.  Oh, and those color bars?  Turn ‘em on and leave ‘em on for a minute for an extra bonus.  A sweet package!

Summary:

It had been reported that Miramax and Criterion had been involved in lengthy discussions over who would get to produce the Chasing Amy DVD.  Criterion, who had the incredible laser disc package all ready to go, was trying to negotiate the DVD rights from Miramax, who, in turn, was attempting to secure the rights to the supplemental material from Criterion for their OWN disc version.  Personally, I’m happy Criterion won out and released the disc, because it’s indicative of the kind of excellent work they’re known for, as opposed to the hit-and-miss at best attitude of the Disney studios toward DVD.  Fans of Smith shouldn’t pass up this quality offering, but even casual observers ought to consider giving this smart, funny, and touching film a spin in their players.