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Review: 'Chasing Amy' excruciating, and not in a good way

Chasing Amy April 7, 1997
Web posted at: 10:42 p.m. EDT (0242 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Back in 1982, Barry Levinson (who would go on to win an Oscar for "Rain Man") wrote and directed his first feature film, a deceptively offhand meditation on the perils of sex, girls and growing up called "Diner."

The movie was observant, funny, filled with winning performances and seemed to be made up of nothing but guys sitting around talking over plates of French fries and gravy. Though this type of conversation-based narrative had long ago been perfected by the French auteur Eric Rohmer, a new generation of American film enthusiasts embraced the perceived lessons of "Diner" as a touchstone.

Some of those enthusiasts grew up to become movie directors, and, consciously or not, many of them have taken to churning out "Diner"-style riffs that conveniently dispense with the hard parts, such as multidimensional characters and intricate plotting.

You have to be pretty darn talented -- and tremendously focused -- to pull this kind of thing off. Kevin Smith, who loaded and pointed a camera at people as a pretense towards "directing" "Clerks" and "Mall Rats," is neither.

No surprise then that his new, allegedly more mature movie, "Chasing Amy," is an excruciating burden to sit through. This is easily the most aggravating two hours I've spent in a theater this year. What makes it all the more annoying is the sinking suspicion that Smith believes he's really blazing a new trail with this one-note symphony. And the note is flat.

Blunt but not intelligent

bar scene

The story: An underground comic book artist named Holden (Ben Affleck) finds himself falling in love with a fellow artist named Alyssa, played by Joey Lauren Adams, the only nominally talented member of the cast. This wreaks havoc on his life because his partner, Banky (Jason Lee, whose acting consists of continually thrusting his palms towards people while delivering dialogue), is jealous of his true love. That's the least of Holden's problems, though. Alyssa is a lesbian.

A lot of critics have applauded the honesty of this situation, and it's true that the nuances of sexual identity are seldom dealt with this bluntly in American movies. But bluntness is not the same as intelligence, and this is where the riches of embarrassment take over.

movie icon (663K/19 sec. QuickTime movie)

Admittedly, Holden and Banky are supposed to be emotionally under-developed. Still, the concept of lesbianism is handled as if same-sex orientation is something found only on the planet Zorgon 7. I'd like to know how two relatively hip New Jerseyites, who spend a great deal of their time in the heart of darkest Manhattan, could have no comprehension whatsoever of two women being sexually attracted to each other.

You could argue that that's the whole point, but if these two guys are really as stupid as Smith wants us to believe they are, they don't deserve any affection, from soft-hearted lesbians or anyone else. There is a lot of frank conversation about the technical aspects of sex between women, but Holden and Banky are written more like sniggering eighth graders than inquisitive adults.

Smith's ridiculous dialogue only makes matters worse. When not pondering same-sex sex, the two buddies spew forth contrived, supposedly witty deconstructions of such tired pop cultural topics as "Star Wars," The Archies and Debbie Gibson. This tedium is broken only by Holden's romantic declarations to Alyssa, which alternate between textbook Freud and junior high school love haiku. After about 45 minutes of this, "Reality Bites" starts looking like a lost masterwork by Jean Renoir.

Visual incompetence

As infantile as almost all of this is, the biggest problem is Kevin Smith, filmmaker. This movie is absolutely mind-boggling in its shoddy construction. Smith displays a complete absence of visual flair, and I mean science lab, absolute zero. Until the last half hour or so, when things finally start to take on a thin veneer of competence, the framing in particular is hilarious. I guess something had to be.

Every piece of visual information is presented head-on, with empty spaces at the side of the frame where, you can be certain, a character will soon step in and start blathering on in the kind of halting cadences usually reserved for small-town dinner theater. The camera is treated like an audience, with the actors simply marching back and forth on a stage.

Someone should tell Smith that D.W. Griffith had the good sense to dispense with this technique in 1915. Most of the first half of the film is composed of these inelegant medium-shots with too much space above the actors' heads. It looks like an American International drive-in quickie from the 1960s. I kept expecting Bruce Dern to show up wearing Hell's Angels colors and swinging a broken pool cue.

When this film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, the audience reportedly gave it a standing ovation. The only time I was moved to applaud was about 20 minutes in when Smith took a sudden stab at basic cross-cutting between two different locations. That the locations were only about 10 feet apart seemed reasonable, considering his reach.


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