While some may write Kevin Smith off as the man who makes films with dirty jokes in, he’s always been a fair better screenwriter than a certain segment of the audience will ever give him credit for. Yet for his best film, you still have to go back around a dozen years, for his third feature, Chasing Amy.
Smith himself has claimed that perhaps the critics lauded over his debut Clerks a little too much, and then they panned the follow up Mallrats a little too harshly. But with Chasing Amy perhaps they got it right. It is his most modest film in terms of film-making scope, budget and script. The panning of Mallrats sent him back to where he was comfortable. There was a smaller budget, a shorter shooting schedule and the reliance more on the talent at hand as opposed to studio backing. This of course was all combined with a very human drama at the core of it all.
That said, there are many Smithisms present and correct in this film. Ben Affleck is in the lead role; Jason Lee gets the comic supporting role; and – yes! – Jay and Pondering Bobbie pop up in a solitary scene towards the end. The script is peppered with one on one vocal confrontations on social satire, accented by a lot of vulgar terms. So far, so Kevin Smith, right?
What makes this film stand out is the drama Smith creates in the film. Granted there is still a lot of vulgar humour delivered from Jason Lee (in a role that only builds strongly on the one he created in Mallrats), but unlike some of Smith’s other attempts at real human drama, Chasing Amy succeeds beautifully.
The problem with Smith’s films post-Amy, for my money, is their idea that each new character needs to stand on a pedestal and preach their involvement in the film to the audience. The drama is also quite often thrust down our throats in long diatribes that come at the expense of the film’s pace. You may as well have one of those guys who direct planes at the airport to wave the audience around so they are being (rather too obviously) directed down the narrative path Smith can’t seem to write subtly anymore.
Dogma was a perfect example of this. With the main protagonist on her journey, along the way she meets more and more characters who join her merry band wagon. Sadly each time they all have a sit down and listen to each new character explain who they are and what their purpose is. It’s like watching his equivalent of the bad guy in a Bond movie revealing his master plan for the audience’s sake. Ironically, the bad guy in Dogma (played by Lee again) does actually make reference to Bond villains once he’s explained about half his plan near the end.
With Amy he fared better. There’s some strong dialogue about moral and sexual preferences, but theu’re written with enough conviction and heart (especially in Affleck’s part) to be believable and not over the top. Each moment leads hastily into the next step of the story. Conversations are more of a personal journey into a character that moved on the plot rather than putting the narrativet on hold. His choice of locations and surroundings also helped dramatise the dialogue so you actually felt like you were spending time with them.
Let’s not overlook too the film’s generally rounded treatment of the gay community. At the time of Amy‘s release, few films were doing this, let alone seriously. And in comedies in particular, homosexuality was used for outright comedic purposes, and not addressed with respect. The film was hit with an 18 certificate in the UK, you suspect because of its subject matter frightening the censors in some way. And yet the irony is that Chasing Amy doesn’t have much in the way of violence, sex or nudity. Could the subject matter itself have been the reason the BBFC reached for an 18 certificate?
That said, controversy wasn’t far away, and a proportion of the gay community spoke out against the film. The not-unjustified criticism was that one of the main characters, a lesbian, is ‘turned’ straight by the leading man. It’s not easy defend, to be fair, and Smith has touched upon this on his Evening With Kevin Smith DVD.
His characters, however, are nonetheless well written, well rounded and hard not to warm to. And what stands out even more in this terrific film is the ending. We are presented with a rather cringe-worthy confrontation that ends with a rather violent and heartbreaking slap in the face (and rightly so too). Not a happy ending for the couple then? No. But the scene that follows makes it all bittersweet with one more meeting between the lead characters that generates a warm, yet saddening, peace between them. It gives the film a mystique (which sadly gets destroyed by the revisit to these characters in Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back).
This, for me, is the Smith film with the cleverest dialogue, and the movie that showed – even without the toilet gags and daft characters – he’s capable of serving up entertaining, rounded characters. It understandably attracted awards attention, and hopefully it’s due for a fresh anniversary DVD special edition. Given the amount of material Smith lavishes on his discs, that’d be something to really look forward to.