Monday, January 22, 2007

Chasing Amy
Trivia: This is the 500th disc I've rented through Netflix, since April of 2004.

This is writer/director Kevin Smith's third movie, after Clerks and Mallrats. I'm conflicted about Smith's flicks. On the one hand, he has some major interests that I share, like comics, sci-fi, and slackerhood (more of a lifestyle choice than an interest, i guess). I also really like some of his dialog and humor. On the other hand, I don't share his interest in over-the-top sex jokes, and some of his dialog is too artificial.

I didn't enjoy Chasing Amy much. Part of that may be that I just don't like Ben Affleck, who plays the lead character, Holden, as an actor. But it's mainly two other things. One, it doesn't work as a romance for me. Two, too much of the dialog is labored and fakey.

Here's the gist of the story. Holden and Alyssa are comic book artists, on different comics. They meet at a convention and spend a friendly evening at a bar with other friends. Alyssa is pretty and funny, and Holden falls for her. Well, turns out Alyssa is a lesbian. They can still be friends, though, and they start spending a lot of friendly time together. Holden really falls for her now, and eventually declares his love. Alyssa freaks out, and they have a big argument in the rain. She runs off pissed, but hey, she runs back and kisses him. Turns out she loves him, too. Of course that's not the end of it, as they have plenty of issues to deal with, and a plot twist, but I don't want recap the whole thing.

There are some interesting ideas in there. Why do we love the people we love? The problem is that these ideas are worked out entirely in lengthy declarative statements from the characters. What's more, this dialog sounds like overly sincere livejournal posts, not people talking. The substance of what they're saying is intriguing enough, but if this is how it's going to be said, I'd much rather read it in text than listen to it being read aloud with a little bit of acting thrown in. It never engaged my emotions the way you want a romance to do, maybe because the language center of my brain was taking up all my personal bandwidth to process the dialog.

I wasn't sure how to take some other elements of the movie. Later on, Holden finds out that Alyssa's past was more sexually adventurous than he suspected. We're given this information in a monolog (of course) that's clearly humorous, in an over-the-top gross-out kind of way, but then a few scenes later, it becomes a highly dramatic plot point. This is a hard transition for me to make, to laugh at something because it's so outrageous and unlikely at one moment, and then be distraught over its implications the next.

In comparing this movie to romantic comedies that I've enjoyed (a short list), to try and figure out why parts of this movie didn't work for me, I thought of The Apartment, which starred Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, and was directed by Billy Wilder. How do these relate in my mind? Well, the protagonists of The Apartment are, like those of Chasing Amy, very flawed and atypical as romantic ideals go. MacLaine's character, like Adam's, has an impressive amorous resume. The couple's romance is far from storybook fare. But it all works very well.

Where's the difference? Let me get my reviewer's snarky little insult out of the way first: Compared to Lemmon and MacLaine, Affleck and Adams are like two fourth graders performing in their church's Christmas play. (Imagine I made a similar quip degrading Smith's direction in comparison to Wilder's.)

There are lots of differences in storytelling, too. We aren't told any snickering gross-out stories about MacLaine's past. Instead, we're shown her current bad relationship in a way that both illustrates how unwise she has been and makes us feel sympathy for her at the same time. We know she's good at heart, worthy and of needful of love, not because dialog has told us so, but because we've seen it for ourselves in the progess of the story and the quality of the acting.

You should go out and rent The Apartment. It's a great movie. Or if you know me, come by and we'll watch it, b/c I've got it on DVD.

One last thing about Chasing Amy. I've heard lots of people say that Kevin Smith is a bad director because he doesn't use the camera well. This is something that I didn't notice in his other movies, so I made a point to look out for it in this one. (Normally, I'll notice outstandingly good shots and cinematography, but if it's bad, I guess I subconciously lump it into a movie's generally suckiness.) What I noticed were a lot of single-camera scenes. A scene tends to be shot from only one angle. Both camera and actors often stay in one place for an entire scene. Now, when two or more characters are simply talking to each other (most of this movie), there's no real need to move the camera around, but doing so once in a while would add something.

I also noticed that an awful lot of the locations and sets were drab and boring. If banality is part of the story--like in Clerks, where the plain convenience store worked to set the mood--that's fine, but here it just managed to give the proceedings a pale backdrop.

One thing I dug about the movie was that it featured the work of one of my favorite comics artists, Mike Allred, creator of Madman. When you see the stuff that Affleck's character has drawn, that's actually drawn by Mike Allred. ( Allred also has a cameo in the comics convention scene at the beginning. You should read some Madman comics. Or, you can read mine, but they don't leave my house. ;)