Genuine Charm In Young-Love Triangle

----------------------------------------------------------------- Movie review

XXX "Chasing Amy," with Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee, Dewight Ewell, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith. Written and directed by Smith. East Valley 13, Lewis & Clark, Meridian 16, Metro. 105 minutes. "R" - Restricted because of language, sexuality. -----------------------------------------------------------------

Kevin Smith's attempt to return to his independent roots is a big improvement on his failed studio film, "Mallrats." It suggests what made his first picture, "Clerks," so direct and amiable.

Even when its young, uncertain characters appear to be in danger of talking (and whining) themselves to death, there's something genuine and charmingly naive about their attempts to make sense of their feelings.

"Chasing Amy" does get off to a bumpy start, with a rough sequence at a comic-book convention that introduces us to the major players: Ben Affleck as comic-book artist Holden, whose "Bluntman and Chronic" is enjoying some success; Jason Lee as Banky, his collaborator, roommate and longtime pal; and Joey Lauren Adams as Alyssa, another comic-book artist who hits it off with Holden but insists she prefers to sleep with women.

Alyssa eventually gives in to Holden, but the script stops short of proposing that she's the kind of lesbian who just needed to find the right man. This is more like a heterosexual phase she just happens to be going through. Holden's macho immaturity becomes a major stumbling block to their relationship, as does Banky's jealousy, which might be sexual.

The movie more or less concludes that he's in love with his best friend, and Holden comes up with a radical solution to all their dilemmas that turns out to be spectacularly unworkable. It also leads to an ending that's mature and bittersweet without being exactly unhappy.

At first Smith just seems to be regurgitating material from "Clerks." There is, for instance, an extended discussion of "Star Wars" and its "racist" agenda: A derogatory term for Caucasian is used in "Star Wars" to identify Mark Hamill's character, and George Lucas and Co. are criticized for revealing that Darth Vader bears no visual relation to James Earl Jones.

But the script eventually gets beyond the pop-culture jokes and starts dealing frankly and intelligently with the problems of three people who are defined by their pasts. Holden, Alyssa and Banky are all trying seriously for the first time to break free of experiences that have limited their options, and that makes their story compelling.

Smith never forgets to look for humor in this hopeless triangle, and neither do his actors. Adams is particularly effective in her early sparring contests with Affleck, while Lee and Affleck make the most of the familiar sniping that defines their characters.

As a piece of filmmaking, "Chasing Amy" is primitive, as primitive in its way as "Clerks" was. It was produced on a budget that wouldn't have covered the music rights on "Mallrats," and Smith never tries to camouflage that. If you're looking for a good-looking, imaginatively staged low-budget film, this isn't it.

Yet compared with such slickly done, empty-headed relationship movies as "Inventing the Abbotts" and "Fools Rush In," its honesty and insights are refreshing.