Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Chasing Amy: Criterion Collection (1997)
Studio Line: View Askew - It's not who you love. It's how.

Chasing Amy is the third installment in the "New Jersey Trilogy" from award-winning writer/director Kevin Smith (Clerks, Mallrats, Dogma). Cult comic-book artist Holden (Ben Affleck) falls in love with fellow artist Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), only to be thwarted by her sexuality, the disdain of his best friend Banky (Jason Lee), and his own misgivings about himself. Filled with Smith's unique ear for dialogue and insight into relationships, Chasing Amy offers a thoughtful, funny look at how perceptions alter lives, and how obsession and self-doubt skew reality.

Director: Kevin Smith
Cast: Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee, Dwight Ewell, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith
Box Office: Budget: $250 thousand. Opening Weekend: $1.64 million. Gross: $12 million.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single side - dual layer; 25 chapters; rated R; 113 min.; $32.99; street date 6/13/00.
Supplements: New Video Introduction to the DVD Edition from Director Kevin Smith Screen-Specific Audio Commentary by Kevin Smith, Producer Scott Mosier, Actors Ben Affleck and Jason Mewes, Associate Procucer Robert Hawk, Miramax Executive Jon Gordon, and View Askew Historian Vincent Pereira; Ten Deleted Scenes, Plus Outtakes; Special Video Introductions from the Cast and Crew; The Askewniverse Legend: A Guide to the Characters in the "New Jersey Trilogy"; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Clerks and Chasing Amy: Two Screenplays - Kevin Smith | Poster

Picture/Sound/Extras: C+/B+/B+

Only one year ago, I'd never actually seen a film by Kevin Smith, and now that Chasing Amy exists on DVD, I've witnessed them all. Granted, with a roster of only four movies, that's not a challenging journey, but it's been an interesting one. From the mostly-hits of Clerks and Dogma to the all-misses of Mallrats, I've been both entertained and annoyed by the antics of Smith - sometimes all at once.

As such, I was curious to check out the final piece in my personal Smith puzzle, 1997's Chasing Amy. I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this movie, as I'd heard very conflicting opinions about it. Dogma is the only Smith movie I saw without any foreknowledge of different opinions about it; I've confronted the three others with varying degrees of pre-existing information, and none of them covered as wide a spectrum as CA.

Now that I've watched it, though, I think it's probably the strongest of Smith's four films. Clerks gets by on sheer brass and indie charm, and Dogma's wildly scattered takes on religion and society flop at times but offer enough demented pleasure to merit a recommendation. Mallrats was the only total disaster.

One thing lacking from each of the other three, however, is a semi-adult viewpoint. Clerks and Mallrats were movies about and for teens and college kids, and their biases came through clearly. Dogma seemed more ambitious but was such a fantasy that I can't actually regard it as an "adult" film.

In CA, Smith maintains a high enough proportion of silly smuttiness that it may seem odd to call it a mature project, but it's the only one of his movies that depicts relationships in a fairly realistic manner. Granted, the story partially hangs on its high concept twist: Holden (Ben Affleck) falls in love with Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams) although she's a lesbian. However, this aspect of the tale becomes less significant than you'd think, and the overall content tells a fairly honest and convincing story of modern relationships.

CA is clearly the most personal of Smith's films, and it's the only one likely to get under your skin, for who hasn't experienced heartache similar to that shown in the movie? Although this part of the content makes the picture drag a bit in the second half - the first hour or so follows the typical Smith gag pattern more conventionally, which means the rest seems somewhat dry - it also provides the film's emotional punch, one that's surprisingly strong. We've seen tales of heartbreak and woe many times, but CA seems more "real" than most, which makes it that much more compelling.

It wouldn't be a Smith movie if it weren't hit or miss, and CA provides ups and down similar to his other offerings. However, these seem fairly minimal, and most of the picture proceeds at a good rate. Smith remains a lackluster visual filmmaker, but his way with words usually helps him deflate those problems.

"Usually" being the key phrase, as Smith's finesse leaves him for many of Alyssa's lines. It's clear he doesn't know how to write for women; Smith writes what he thinks women would write and doesn't show much skill in that area. Hey, I wouldn't be able to do any better, so this isn't a terrible slam on him. It's just that Alyssa's lines often seemed vaguely "off"; I couldn't quite put my finger on the issues, but her dialogue appeared wrong in mild ways.

Adams does the best she can with the part and is fairly winning as Alyssa. She's easily the most complicated character in the film, especially as various aspects of her past pop up throughout the movie. Adams doesn't completely conquer the part but she muddles her way through some awkward bits with aplomb.

Affleck seems a bit bland as Holden, but he grounds the film nicely and gives us a character into whom we can easily project ourselves, which is much of the point; had Holden been more charismatic or strong, it would have been tougher to see ourselves in the part. As Holden's best friend, Jason Lee is a minor revelation. I absolutely loathed his crude and abrasive work in Mallrats, and though Banky is still a fairly obnoxious guy, Lee greatly tones down the personality and actually comes through as a believable, realistic person. Since I thought his acting in Mallrats was one of the worst parts about it, I was quite surprised to see how much I liked his work here; he makes the role convincing and sympathetic.

Speaking of the cast, I was curious to see how the oft-irritating Jay (Jason Mewes) would come across in this film. Obnoxious stoner Jay was a fun diversion in Clerks but became self-consciously abrasive and cringe-worthy in Mallrats. He manages to seem very tolerable in CA, partly because we see less of him here than in any of the other three films. (Ironically, although Jay plays a bigger part in Dogma than in any of the other pictures, he's most winning there - Smith gives him some great lines and Mewes actually delivers them effectively.) I also was happy to hear Jay mock some of the worst parts of Mallrats: his incessant cries of "snoochie boochies". After the excesses of the prior film, it was good to see Jay brought down to earth.

One very fun aspect of Smith's films comes from his very self-referential style, as touched upon by the "snoochie boochies" statement in the last paragraph. He loves to toss out references to characters and events from the other movies, which adds a whole extra dimension to the entertainment; you're rewarded for remembering parts of the different movies. Hey, maybe it's all a scheme to make us watch them over and over, but it's cool nonetheless, especially when the participants discuss characters played by the same actors in the other films (such as comments about Shannon from Mallrats, also portrayed by Affleck). The style could get annoying, but Smith keeps it modest enough that it works as a minor bit of fun.

That statement applies aptly to pretty much everything Smith's done: all of his films could easily become irritating, but for the most part, they remain entertaining, clever and witty. Chasing Amy certainly possesses its share of flaws, but it remains the most accomplished and affecting work he's done to date.

The DVD:

Chasing Amy appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the dimensions are correct, the framing apparently is not, as a running controversy has indicated. From what I understand, parts of the movie - but not all, or even most, of it - are improperly framed. One notable example occurs during the train station scene; when Affleck and Lee stand, their heads are badly cropped.

To be honest, I didn't really notice the poor framing as I watched the movie. Perhaps this reflects badly upon my visual discrimination skills, but I think it's more due to the fact that this is a Kevin Smith movie; he creates some of the worst composition you'll see, so it's not all that odd to witness stuff like this bad framing. It stinks that the problem is there - apparently the Criterion laserdisc didn't have the issue - but I didn't think it was the end of the world.

On a sidenote, I must admit I am troubled by the various bouts of finger-pointing I've seen. First people came down on director of photography David Klein since the DVD claimed the image was supervised by him. Apparently this wasn't the case; Buena Vista owns the rights to the film, and it seems that they created the image and shipped it to Criterion, who then supposedly thought it had been approved by Klein.

Lots of folks have come down on Buena Vista, and appropriately so, but I don't think it's appropriate to absolve Criterion of all blame. After all, though BV may distribute this DVD, it's still part of the Criterion collection, and they're supposed to take pains to make sure everything's perfect. Honestly, I don't think it's terribly productive to seek to blame anybody; mistakes were made by a few parties. However, I just don't like the fact that all the negative attention has come down on only one participant.

As for the quality of the picture itself, it generally looks pretty good but a number of flaws knock it down a few notches. Sharpness seems tight and accurate most of the time, though some scenes come across as oddly soft for no apparent reason; these don't dominate the film but they crop up from time to time. Moiré effects and jagged edges seem largely absent, and I noticed only mild artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV.

Print flaws are the biggest problem with the image; they're what submerge it into "C+" territory. Most of the film displays moderate grain from start to finish, and a variety of other problems appear as well; I detected occasional scratches, tears, hairs and speckles. A movie from 1997 - even a modest, low-budget effort like this - simply shouldn't have so many defects.

Much better are the movie's colors, which almost always seem bright and well-saturated. The hues really look terrific, as they appear quite bold and rich but never cross over into over-saturation. Black levels are fine, with deep and dark tones that complement the colors well. Shadow detail seems strong as well; the shading appears appropriately thick but never looks excessively heavy. Without all of the print flaws, Chasing Amy rates at least a solid "B" and maybe even a "B+"; however, the high level of defects really affect the overall appearance.

Consistently quite good is the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, which seems surprisingly effective for such a small picture. The soundfield sticks mainly to the forward channels, where it provides some nice imaging. Music spreads especially well to the side channels; the songs we hear offer an immersive environment that makes them more prominent. Effects pop up from the sides less frequently, but they are used appropriately and they blend together well. Even a little dialogue emanates from the sides at times; during the end sequence at the comic convention, almost all of one character's spiel comes from the left speaker. The surrounds receive more modest usage; for the most part, they just reinforce the music. Although the soundfield lacks ambition, it seems eminently appropriate for this kind of film.

Also strong is the quality of the audio. Dialogue can appear a little muddy at times, but it usually sounds clear and natural. Effects are clean and realistic, and the music comes across terrifically well; it displays fine dynamic range and really adds some dimension to the mix. One shouldn't expect a slam-bang soundtrack for a movie like Chasing Amy, but the audio delivers a very satisfying experience.

The Criterion DVD adapts materials originally developed for their laserdisc release, and it's a solid package. First up is a good audio commentary from Smith, Affleck, Mewes, producer Scott Mosier, associate producer Robert Hawk, Miramax executive Jon Gordon and View Askew historian Vincent Pereira. Most Criterion tracks record participants separately and edit them together, but this one follows the same course as the commentaries Smith, et al., did for Clerks and Mallrats and packs all of the guys together for the duration of the film.

That approach was a disaster for Clerks but worked fine for Mallrats, and happily, CA's track more closely resembles the latter. As with that affair, Smith and Affleck dominate the proceedings and present a lot of solid information in an engaging and entertaining manner. The other participants also offer some good details, and the entire track is a lot of fun.

When we go to the "Deleted Scenes" section we encounter Smith and the rest of the crew as they introduce each of the cut segments. There's also a general introduction and end piece, and the whole thing - ten deleted pieces, plus intros - runs for about 39 minutes. In general, the clips offer interesting stuff; though you can see why they were cut, most of them are worth watching. It's a mix of clips that extend existing scenes and a few that were cut totally, and the area gives us a nice look at some unused material.

That section also tosses in five minutes and 15 seconds of outtakes. These are largely the usual takes blown by goof-ups and laughter. I'm not a huge fan of this kind of stuff, but as long as neither Burt Reynolds nor Jackie Chan appear, they're usually watchable, and these fit that bill.

One of the most interesting aspects of this DVD is an "Introduction" from Kevin Smith. This discusses the fact the product is essentially a port of an old LD, and since Smith makes an infamous comment about DVD on the commentary, he explains that here. The bit runs for two minutes and 50 seconds and is funny and entertaining.

Finally, the DVD finishes with the film's theatrical trailer plus a cool little booklet. The latter includes excellent liner notes from Smith - which provide a lot more information about how personal the project was for him - and also gives us a "guide" to all of the characters in Smith's "New Jersey trilogy". And there's an "Easter egg" as well. Click on the ubiquitous "color bars" to find it - it's definitely worth your while.

As is this whole DVD. Kevin Smith will probably never create a truly great movie; he's just too inconsistent. However, despite the hit-or-miss nature of his work, he provides more than enough creativity and wit to make the films generally very good, and Chasing Amy stands as his best work to date. The DVD offers decent picture with fine sound and some terrific extras. If I could only own one Smith DVD, this would be it; Chasing Amy would make a valuable addition to your collection.

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