Since he burst onto the independent film scene in 1994 with Clerks, profanity-prone writer/director Kevin Smith has more or less stayed on brand. With few exceptions, his films revolve around verbose slackers in varied states of arrested development – almost literally in the case of his debut’s breakout characters, the drug-dealing duo of Jay and Silent Bob (played by Jason Mewes and Smith himself). After anchoring his first five films, they were ostensibly retired from the big screen (along with the rest of Smith’s comic-book-inspired View Askewniverse) in 2001’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, but returned for an unearned victory lap in 2006’s imaginatively titled Clerks II, which failed to recapture its predecessor’s verve.
In between came the ill-fated Jersey Girl, which found Smith straining against his usual impulses in an attempt to craft something more family-friendly. (In addition to being focused on a widower struggling with the challenge of raising a daughter by himself, the film was also Smith’s first to earn a PG-13 rating. His second? Last year’s uber-juvenile Yoga Hosers, a starring vehicle for his own daughter.)
What’s most dispiriting about Smith’s recent turn toward insularity — 2014’s Tusk and Yoga Hosers are the very definition of “fans only” films, and upcoming projects like Mallbrats and Clerks III look to be further rehashes of old glories — is that he’s proven on at least one occasion that he can produce something of substance that doesn’t betray his muse. When Chasing Amy premiered two decades ago at Sundance, Smith was coming off the sophomore slump that was Mallrats, which tried to split the difference between his scrappy indie sensibility and the demands of working for a Hollywood studio. The results wound up being neither fish nor fowl and failed to be the crossover hit he and Gramercy hoped for, but it did mean he went into his follow-up with a few professional actors in his ad-hoc repertory company. Returning to the Garden State with Joey Lauren Adams, Ben Affleck, and Jason Lee in tow, Smith took the adage “write what you know” to heart and crafted a personal story about love and friendship, and the myriad ways they can interfere with and sabotage each other.
As the film opens, Jersey-based comic-book artists Holden McNeil (Affleck) and Banky Edwards (Lee) are at Manhattan Comic-Con promoting their latest book, the wildly successful Bluntman and Chronic, which bears the likenesses of Jay and Silent Bob. A sop to the superhero set stocked with copious weed references, Bluntman rakes in the dough, but doesn’t satisfy Holden artistically. (Banky, meanwhile, is all for selling out and making a deal with the television execs — played by Clerks star Brian O’Halloran and Matt Damon — who have expressed interest in turning it into a cartoon.) When not signing comics for their obsessive fans, Holden and Banky are helping their friend Hooper X (Dwight Ewell), a gay black man whose public persona is that of a butch militant, stage a publicity stunt at a panel on minority representation to drum up interest in his niche book White Hating Coon. Afterwards, Hooper introduces them to his fellow panelist, romance comic creator Alyssa Jones (Adams), with whom Holden is immediately smitten — so smitten he doesn’t stop to consider why she would be booked on that particular panel in the first place. In fact, Holden remains clueless about her sexuality right up until the moment she kisses another girl right in front of him (in, it must be said, a lesbian bar that his sheltered suburban ass totally failed to recognize as such).
That might have been all she wrote had it not been for Alyssa’s desire to remains friends with Holden, who finds his assumptions challenged the more time he spends with her and finds himself falling in love in spite of himself. Naturally enough, this doesn’t sit well with Banky, who resents all the time he spends with Alyssa and whose hostility toward her manifests itself in ugly, homophobic outbursts which are ultimately revealed to be a function of his own repressed homosexuality. Well before that comes to light, though, he works on Holden, planting seeds of doubt (“This is all going to end badly,” he accurately predicts) and digging up proof that she’s more experienced with guys than she’s let on. But that doesn’t really become an issue until after Holden and Alyssa become an item, however improbable that may have seemed in the front half of the film.
Not coincidentally, the first half is the more overtly comedic part of the picture, with Smith switching to drama right around the time Alyssa switches sides, so to speak. That this plays into the hetero male fantasy of being able to turn a lesbian straight is addressed in the speech Smith gives her about her choice to be with Holden, and for the duration of their relationship she’s consistently shown to be the wiser and more thoughtful of the two. This distinction becomes crystal clear in the infamous scene where Holden, having publicly confronted Alyssa with the dirt Banky dug up on her and immediately regretted it, sits them both down and proposes a ménage à trois, which he naively believes will solve all their problems and which she knows will do nothing of the sort. In fact, the mere act of suggesting it is enough to cause a rift between all three parties, resulting in the discontinuation of Bluntman and Chronic on top of sounding the final death knell for Holden and Alyssa’s relationship. As the epilogue shows, though, Holden truly was listening a few scenes earlier when Silent Bob (in his and Jay’s one scene in the film) delivered his customary pearl of wisdom. He just took the wrong lesson from it at first.
If nothing else, Chasing Amy provides fans of Smith’s early films ample opportunities to draw connections between them. They are, after all, the viewers who will recognize the passing references to Caitlin Bree, Julie Dwyer, Brandi Svenning (and her father), Tricia Jones (“the one who wrote the book”), and Rick Derris. And they know that the bus Jay and Silent Bob are headed for after their scene will deposit them in Illinois for the start of Dogma, which is the film Smith originally intended to follow Clerks with before Hollywood beckoned. While it’s tempting to imagine what a more modestly budgeted version of that script would have looked like (for one thing, we might have been spared the poorly CGI’d birth of Noman the Shit Demon), the real takeaway here is that Smith does his best work when he — like Holden McNeil — has something personal to say. Perhaps he’ll take that into consideration once he completes his True North Trilogy (with Moose Jaws, the ultimate expression of his unabashed Jaws fandom) and go back to writing and directing films that have the ring of truth to them.
Craig J. Clark lives in Bloomington, Ind.