Chasing Amy (1997)
Dir. Kevin Smith
Written by: Kevin Smith
Starring: Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee
From age 14 to age 19, I was obsessed with Kevin Smith and his View Askewniverse, the interconnected film universe that was made up of his first five features. I discovered the king of 1990s raunchy, independent comedy when a friend of mine rented Mallrats on VHS when I was staying the night at his house. I’ll write much more about that film later in this project, but we watched that tape three times over the course of the weekend and I was totally hooked, itching to track down more of Smith’s movies. This would have been 1999 or 2000, and Dogma was fairly new, although I hadn’t seen it in the movie theater. My first experiences with nearly all of his films, at least until me and my friends went to see Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back in the movie theater, was via rental tapes from my local Blockbuster Video. My friends and I would take out both Mallrats and Smith’s debut, Clerks, routinely, memorizing the lines and inserting the catch phrases and odd character mannerisms into our everyday banter. We were totally enamored with the broad comedy, the esoteric nerdy callouts, and the laid-back stoner vibe that Smith’s first two films represented, but Chasing Amy was something different. Eventually, at least for a while, the film would be my favorite Kevin Smith movie and, at least briefly, my favorite movie, period, but it took time for me to get there. It was a movie that I had to grow into, and mature a little bit to really understand, but it was also a movie that I quickly outgrew when I moved into my adult life.
Smith’s third feature, Chasing Amy, marks the first turn towards more dramatic storytelling for a filmmaker who was to this point best known for his crude sense of humor. All of Smith’s first three films, at that point loosely grouped together as a “Jersey trilogy,” could be described as some sort of love story, but Chasing Amy is the only one that I would really describe as a romantic comedy. The film presents the quasi-love triangle formed by best friends Holden (Affleck) and Banky (Lee), creators of the popular “Bluntman & Chronic” comic book series, and Alyssa (Adams), author of the feminist comic “Idiosyncratic Routine,” whom they meet at a convention. Holden immediately falls for Alyssa and he initially believes that his affections are reciprocated, until Alyssa invites him out to a bar, which he slowly realizes is a lesbian bar. Although she isn’t interested in him romantically, Alyssa and Holden strike up a friendship, which eventually becomes a deep emotional bond. Eventually, Holden reveals to Alyssa that his romantic feelings haven’t subsided and that he is more in love with her than before. Initially, Alyssa is resistant and justifiably angry at the assumptions that Holden makes that she can just turn her sexuality on and off, and recontextualize her entire identity to suit his whims, but she eventually accepts that she has real feelings for him, as well, and they begin a romantic relationship. This new relationship pushes an already strained relationship between Holden and Banky to the breaking point, and Banky begins to try to sour Holden’s feelings for Alyssa by dredging into her past. Banky’s digging eventually causes Holden to question Alyssa about her sexual past, and while she tries desperately to reassure him, Holden’s insecurities ultimately torpedo their relationship. At the same time, his resentment of Banky for meddling ends their friendship and all three characters are left at a crossroads, deciding to move on alone.
When I first saw Chasing Amy, probably sometime freshman year of high school, my response was mixed. I wasn’t prepared for the sharp left turn that this film represented, especially after having seen Clerks and Mallrats a dozen times each. Smith’s characteristically intelligent, rapid-fire dialogue was there, but it wasn’t being used in the service of comedy most of the time. He was exploring emotions that I wasn’t really experiencing yet in my life, and I didn’t find as much to grasp onto with Chasing Amy at first. I was, however, able to glean some enjoyment out of the film even early on before it really sunk its claws into me. I remember being a big fan of Banky, as his character was the most “comedic” element in the film, and because Jason Lee has an innate understanding of Smith’s dialogue that often seems to elude other actors. Smith’s writing has a naturalistic feel, but the dialogue is often peppered with unusual slang and portmanteau, and Lee manages to get inside the words in a way that makes the sometimes strange phrasings feel familiar. In Chasing Amy, he delivers one-liners and acerbic quips with off-the-cuff regularity. Moreover, even though the romantic bits of the film didn’t connect with me on an emotional level yet, I could recognize that the turn towards more dramatic storytelling was producing some of Smith’s best writing. Chasing Amy feels real, in a way that Smith’s earlier and later output never has, and after I had had an opportunity to have some real romantic relationships and experience a few breakups, it felt even more real and relatable to me. By the end of high school, I picked up my own copy of the movie on DVD (probably my first Criterion Collection disc) and it became one of my go-to films, and one of the cultural treatises on romantic love that I clung to as gospel.
A lot can change in a decade and a half. Watching Chasing Amy again in 2017 was a much different experience than the one that I remembered from the last time I watched it. As I mentioned, Jason Lee’s Banky was one of my favorite parts of the film when I was younger, but watching it again now, his casual misogyny and homophobia is cringeworthy. The film as a whole tries to walk a tightrope between opening up the View Askewiniverse to new, diverse characters and points of view, and doubling down on the male-centric humor of Smith’s other films. Even though the film portrays Banky’s views as regressive and small-minded, it still culls much of its humor from his putdowns and insults of Alyssa and her sexuality, in a way trying to have its cake and eat it, too. I don’t know if there are viewership statistics available for this film, but Smith’s core audience was male dominant to this point in his career, and even though Chasing Amy was a breakout hit that connected with the mainstream, I would imagine that Smith was hesitant to fully alienate his teen male following by fully embracing the potential of a more progressive script. I think that Chasing Amy is, on the whole, a good film for representation, but I think some of its condemnations are a bit too light for me to wholly endorse it as a progressive or positive representation of modern sexuality.
As a straight man, I don’t know that I truly have the depth of insight to comment fully on the sexual politics at play in Chasing Amy, so I will make an attempt to stay in my lane and not step out of my own role as a film critic. The film’s unfortunate homophobia aside, it portrays nuanced, realistic gay characters, but sometimes undercuts their agency. Hooper X (Dwight Ewell), is a codeswitching gay, black comic author who is a friend to Holden and, to a lesser extent, Banky. In public, Hooper adopts an aggressive, militant demeanor to better match the persona put forward in his comic book, “White Hating Coon.” He feels that the book would lose authenticity with his readers if they knew that he were actually an effeminate gay man. This speaks to the sort of passing that many gay men and women feel they have to go through every day in order to succeed in their social or professional lives, and it’s an issue that deserves to be addressed fully, but, unfortunately, Hooper is often reduced to comic relief. Instead of exploring the nuances of a character like Hooper, I felt like that character was often being set-up as a stereotype for a punchline. I can forgive Smith for not exploring the full ramifications of Hooper’s character because, ultimately, he’s a rather small character in the film, but I can still wish that Chasing Amy would go there.
Even in its portrayal of the central romantic relationship between Alyssa and Holden, Alyssa isn’t given equal footing to stand on. While Holden’s sexuality and sexual desire are presented as simple and pure, and are the catalysts for the film, Alyssa’s sexual desire is summed up as a confusing problem that can be solved by just meeting the right man. The film’s approval of Alyssa’s sexual past and the fluidity of her sexuality are progressive, and they’re ideas that certainly weren’t often presented as positively in films of the time, but the ultimate romantic goal in the film is to form a male/female couple. Even though Alyssa very clearly is a lesbian and identifies as such throughout the movie, Chasing Amy largely still plays out as a “straight savior” story, and implies that some gay women may just need to meet that right guy in order to “fix” their sexuality. Again, I try to tread lightly when I’m considering representation of groups that I don’t belong to, but something about the portrayal of Alyssa’s sexuality felt off to me. Of course, maybe I’m asking too much from a filmmaker like Smith, and I appreciate the attempts that he did make in this film simply to include gay characters and people of color. I think Chasing Amy wants to be a more progressive film than Smith necessarily had the vocabulary to make at the time. It comes close, but its insistence on clinging to straight male points of view hampers its ability to fully explore some of its ideas.
That being said, watching Chasing Amy is still a pretty enjoyable experience. While it probably doesn’t go as far as I would like in exploring its characters sexuality and desires, it presents ideas about romantic love, friendship, and sexuality that are progressive and valuable. Joey Lauren Adams gives a memorable performance as Alyssa, and this film is the reason that I continue to be a Ben Affleck apologist. Both actors portray real, raw emotions as they try to work out the dynamics of a new relationship. The movie is still funny, and it still probably represents the high point of Smith’s screenwriting. Watching a film that was impactful on you in your youth after years of growing up is an interesting experience. Chasing Amy is a film that I was so familiar with, but changes that I’ve made in my life have left me viewing it very differently in my thirties than I did as a very young man. While it had seemed monumental and profound then, now I enjoy it as a realistic, if not totally relatable, romantic comedy. In real life, romantic love can take myriad forms, and that’s one of the important lessons in Chasing Amy. Don’t close your mind off to other possibilities or exist within rigid structures if you want to chase happiness.