Slowly, like a latent teen pulled against his will into adulthood, Kevin Smith is growing up.
But he’s not growing quietly.
The director of “Clerks” and “Mallrats,” two films whose greatest strengths are their gross charms, tackles a more adult world in his new film, “Chasing Amy.” As in the past, Smith is still studying the stumbling blocks that people must cope with on the road to mature relationships.
But there is a difference here. At least Smith is no longer questioning why one should grow up. These days, he’s trying to figure out how it’s done.
As always, though, he indulges in a virtual thesaurus of pee-pee and poop jokes along the way.
His protagonists are Holden (Ben Affleck) and Banky (Jason Lee), a comic-book team whose popularity puts them above the ordinary bottom-feeders who work the comic-book convention circuit.
You know, the kind who say such things as, “I love Chow Yun-Fat, but I just don’t see him as Batman.”
While appearing at one such event, Holden meets another struggling comic artist, Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams). And JUST LIKE THAT, he falls in love.
There’s just one little problem: Alyssa turns out to be a lesbian.
But that’s OK. Because, you see, Holden and Alyssa turn out to be soulmates. They’re from the same New Jersey town, they went to rival high schools and they have the kinds of temperaments that naturally complement one another.
If only they can get past the sex thing.
Clearly, this is an explosive topic for the movies. Sexual orientation is one of the most divisive issues of the day, and Hollywood seems comfortable dealing with it only in one of three basic ways: drag-queen comedies (“The Birdcage”), sensitive AIDS dramas (“Longtime Companion”) or serial-killer thrillers (“Cruising”).
Smith, never faint at heart, blunders into the world of straight-vs.-gay sensibilities with all the timidity of Howard Stern.
After playing out every gay stereotype imaginable, he then turns the joke on its head by suggesting that one character who spouts the very worst of such nonsense - the ultra-homophobe Banky - is gay himself.
This kind of irony is the basis for much of Smith’s humor. His more difficult task is to come up with a believable, and dramatically satisfying, resolution to his main storyline: Can a lesbian find happiness if she just finds the “right” man?
Amazingly enough, Smith accomplishes his task - although his ending is not what you might expect and it’s not one that’s likely to please everyone.
But then Smith clearly isn’t out to please everyone. A filmmaker who knows his audience, Smith is just as likely to write a scene where a woman, eloquently and movingly, pleads for understanding from the man she loves as he is to write dialogue for two characters comparing oral-sex experiences.
Lots of “Chasing Amy,” in fact, is drawn from Smith’s familiar closet of movies tricks: his topics (fellatio, hockey, homophobia, etc.), his settings (Quick Stop, the mall), his characters (Jason Mewes as Jay and Smith himself as Silent Bob) and even his actors (look for Brian O’Halloran from “Clerks” in a cameo as a would-be movie producer).
So don’t go thinking that Smith has suddenly developed the smooth feel of, say, a Rob Reiner. He’s learned to write with more sensitivity, and he’s able to coax genuinely professional performances from his cast (especially from Adams, with whom he shares living space in real life). Underneath it all, though, he’s still the Garden State’s bad-boy suburban moviemaker.
In the end, “Chasing Amy” is a step up for a guy whose first movie cost barely $27,000. Not a big step, maybe, but enough of one to make you think that this guy might indeed have a future.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Chasing Amy” *** Locations: Lyons Credits: Written and directed by Kevin Smith, starring Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee, Dwight Ewell, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith Running time: 1:49 Rating: R