At the time of Chasing Amy‘s release, Kevin Smith was something of a Hollywood enigma. He’d already garnered acclaim with Clerks, his 1994 debut, but suffered through a slight sophomore slump with Mallrats, his tepidly-received 1995 follow-up. The films comprised the first two legs of Smith’s “Jersey Trilogy,” and both featured the director’s trademark style of slacker-neurosis comedy — one built upon fast-paced dialogue, biting wit, and a distinctly generational brand of pop philosophy.
With Chasing Amy, however, Smith took a slight detour. The trilogy’s final installment incorporates some of the same themes, and even characters that ran throughout the first two, and it certainly showcases Smith’s meticulously textured writing; but it’s not exactly of the same genre. Rather, the movie stands as more of a hybridized work, delicately placed at the crossroads of romance, drama, and comedy. One minute, Holden and Alyssa are engaged in an almost pubescent conversation about the physics behind lesbian sex. The next, they’re baring their souls to one another, exposing their most intimate insecurities and uncertainties.
But the transitions between these two extremes aren’t as jarring as one may think, primarily because Smith’s script is so brilliantly balanced. Although the narrative touches upon relatively serious issues surrounding sexual identity and ambiguity, these subjects are buoyed by an undercurrent of frivolity that precludes the film from veering into the moralistic.
This duality is reinforced by the film’s context, as well. Holden, played by Ben Affleck, enjoys relative success as a comic book illustrator, but, perhaps like Smith himself, feels artistically restricted by what he sees as a commodity-driven industry. It’s this tempered balance between high- and low-brow — between the profound and the banal — that makes Smith’s writing so unique, and allows Chasing Amy to transcend conventions governing most romantic comedies.
This seemingly sudden genre shift didn’t go over too well with fans of Smith’s more stoner-friendly comedy, with some die-hards accusing him of “going soft.” In a 1997 interview with the A.V. Club, the director brushed aside such criticism, explaining that the opportunity to explore a new genre far outweighed any risks:
“To me, that was exciting because it’s just so new. Comedy we’d done twice for better or for worse, and it’s not like I’m tired of it, but I’d done it before, so that was nothing new. Going into this—the idea of, “Wow, dramatic stuff”—is like getting a new toy. You’re fascinated by it and you wish you had more. When the movie’s said and done, I thought, ‘My God, we should have done more of this.’ More drama. That’s just the excitement of something that’s kind of fresh.”
During the same interview, Smith also commented on his approach to filmmaking, offering some characteristically blunt (and self-deprecating) advice for young filmmakers:
“… it’s all about the script. It has so very little to do with anything else. You know, if my career has done anything, it proves you don’t need a visual style to work in film—which is ironic, because it’s a visual medium—as long as you have something worthwhile to say. And if my first film proved anything, it’s that they will forgive you so many things. Clerks looked shitty. Some of the performances are downright wooden, you know, and God, for something that takes place in a visual medium, there’s not much visual going on. But the script was there, the script was tight, the dialogue was tight, and people dug on it. If that’s the case, they’ll forgive you a lot.”
This may seem like a fair assessment of his screenwriting capabilities, but it perhaps unfairly discredits his visual language. Take, for instance, this scene from Chasing Amy. It’s an early turning point in the film, marking the moment when Holden realizes that Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams) is gay, and effectively igniting the engine that drives that rest of the story.
Rather than rely on dialogue to carry the scene, Smith instead chooses to let the action unfold, allowing his actors to convey awkward hilarity with almost mimetic gestures. For just a few minutes, Smith puts down his pen, takes a step back, and allows narrative forces to collide. He may consider himself more writer than director, but as this sequence proves, there’s a lot more to Chasing Amy than words alone.
Chasing Amy is now available on Blu-ray, along with Clerks and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, as part of the recently released Kevin Smith Triple Feature. To purchase your own, click here.