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Heat of the Moment

Return we must with brash Kevin Smith to the place that inspires him: suburban New Jersey. Chasing Amy is Smith's third feature in as many years, and neither his use of color film stock nor--surprise!--his breakout from shooting in one room much distinguishes his latest outing from its predecessors, the debut hit Clerks and the listless sophomore slump Mallrats. What is different (in spots, anyway) is the depth of his social excavations. Smith doesn't seem to be growing up, but down.

Searching for a new twist on romantic comedy? Try this: Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck), the creator of a hip comic book called "Bluntman and Chronic," falls for free-spirited fellow artist Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams). To his surprise and dismay, fetching Alyssa turns out to be a lesbian. (Don't you hate it when that happens?) In turn, Holden's lifelong friend and collaborator, Banky (Jason Lee), finally acknowledges that he's not just committed to watching Holden's back but is fascinated with his front, as well.

Kind of a mess, this twisted triangle. But it's also fertile ground in which to explore some nettlesome issues, like the difference between sex and love, the ideal of self-determination and the eternal quest for a soulmate. Whatever Smith lacks in technical command, which is plenty (and of which lack he seems plenty proud), he makes up for in pure feeling. You might even dub him Bluntman. In this dark comedy, testosterone collides head-on with the impossible object of its desire, and in the cascade of foul-mouthed talk about sex organs and what used to happen in the backseats of cars and all the hot anxiety that ensues, the king of low-budget funk (in this case, $250,000, all told) once more manages to get under the squirmy skin of his peers. There he uncovers their poses and denials and dreams. He may be crude, but he's in touch.

Smith's new crop of Garden Staters are literal and spiritual relatives of the characters in his earlier movies; in fact, actors Adams, Affleck and Lee are all ex-Mallrats, and the players seem to know exactly what they are doing here. In Amy, they again walk the walk and talk the talk of the late Nineties. But their quandary--their touchingly unhinged quality--is timeless. How to connect, how to cut through the forest of insecurity, how to leave a story behind you, in life or on the page--that's the test. But hardcore Smith fans may suspect their man of hedging his bets a little this time around. To wit: Just when the romantic barrier between Holden and Alyssa seems highest, it suddenly vanishes. To his astonishment, our young hero convinces the woman he loves to try a little heterosexuality. To his shock, he then learns she's been down that road before--and turned it into a personal superhighway. Of course, there's also the matter of his partner, Banky, one foot out of the closet and the "Bluntman and Chronic" business suddenly in jeopardy.

Despite their cool poses, their affected affectlessness, these are people who feel the heat from their tangled emotions and can't cope. Their temperamental sex-o-gram, as Holden points out, inevitably has to get "queered."

Smith goes in deeper this trip, and that means a couple of supporting characters who cast light on the central menage. The best of them is Hooper (Dwight Ewell), a black nationalist firebrand who, at the New York comics convention that opens the movie, lets fly with an angry indictment of the white establishment--political and artistic--that ends when he pulls a huge pistol out of his black leather jacket and waves it at the terrified conventioneers. A few minutes later, though, we learn that Hooper, too, is playing the posing game. He's "a minority in a minority in a minority" whose self-definition problems run even deeper than those of his friends. But in this scheme of things, he could scarcely feel more alienated than anyone else.

When it comes to portraying youthful American anxiety--real or imagined--Kevin Smith is a veritable bricklayer. Certainly, he also fancies himself a kind of suburban subversive--young Howard Stern with a Panaflex, perhaps, or James Joyce set loose on the streets of Red Bank. Hey. His comic artist even seems to know all about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and that ill-fated ocean voyage.

Whether Smith's low-down slices of life--three perfectly imperfect movies--actually add up to what is being called, a bit grandly, his "New Jersey Trilogy," is a matter of some conjecture. That his work captures the confusions and screwups and identity crises that plague his contemporaries is not. He hasn't cast himself as the poet laureate of Generation X, because that's not what anyone wants. He's more like the Nineties' designated vandal, eager to set off hand grenades in the cultural punch bowl, stand up for slackerdom and give the sexual politics of his time a swift kick in the butt.

His stubborn grunge ethic is fueled by calculated effrontery, to be sure, but it looks like he's also on to something important--the deep-down disturbance of a generation that, despite all the noise it makes, often has trouble finding a voice. So when Kevin Smith shouts, his people listen.

Chasing Amy.
Written and directed by Kevin Smith. With Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee and Dwight Ewell.

 
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