In Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes, John Pierson’s engrossing account of the past decade of independent cinema, the deal-maker-turned-author describes an unlikely friendship that blossomed between two filmmakers he represented. One was Guinevere Turner, star, writer, and producer of Go Fish, a breakthrough indie feature by and for lesbian filmmakers. The other was Kevin Smith, the 23-year-old writer-director whose first film, Clerks, became an underground sensationthough not on the strength of its female characters.
Pierson remembers their initial meetings as slightly tense. Nevertheless, the two became close buddies. Turner called the former New Jersey convenience-store clerk a huge romantic; for his part, Smith said his friendship with Turner might be the first he’d ever had with a woman that didn’t end badly. “It is cool that she’s gay because you can play with her, talk smack, and not get crossed wires,” he told Pierson. “Good fences make good neighbors.”
The fence imagery makes sensein Smith’s movies, female sexuality is as forbidding as the Berlin Wall. His mart ’n’ mall denizens always try to scale the ramparts, never knowing what awaits them; more often than not, they get shot down. The only thing scarier is getting acrossand finding that women have also been vaulting back and forth for years. Witness the hero of Clerks, who freaks when he discovers that his girlfriend has, um, serviced about 37 guys.
Guys who never spend any time with women always exaggerate female promiscuity in their fantasies, only to resent (and envy) it equally in real life. That hang-up stoked much of the humor in Clerks and Smith’s second movie, Mallrats. But the centerpiece of Clerksa woman having sex with a corpse on a convenience-store toiletmade you wonder how much the writer and director shared the fear and misapprehension of his benighted strip-mall sad sacks.
A lot, as it turns out. Smith’s ambitious new comedy-drama, Chasing Amy, is an unexpectedly brave attempt to deal with the obstaclesbackgrounds, myths, prejudicesthat perpetually screw up relations between men and women, and it’s too unguarded and personal to brush off. Like Smith, its hero, Holden (Ben Affleck), is a twentysomething artist who has hit the big time at a young age: He’s the creator of a successful comic-book series, Bluntman and Chronic, and his only constant companion is Banky (Jason Lee), his inker and his caustic pal of 20 years. At a comic convention, he meets and falls for Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), a struggling comic-book artist who is beautiful, funny, challenging, and immensely appealing. She also tells him she’s gay.
Even with romance seemingly out of the question, Alyssa’s arrival nonetheless rocks Holden’s world. Banky resents the intrusion of a newcomer between him and his buddy; Alyssa counters that Banky’s homophobia masks some kind of thwarted, inexpressible love that goes beyond friendship. In the middle, Holden grows to cherish Alyssa’s company but can’t stop longing for something more. In a thunderstorm, with tears of rain streaming down the windows of his car, he confesses to Alyssa that he can’t see her as just a friendand he begs her just to consider the possibility, however tiny, that she loves him too.
Holden’s gain, in a way, turns out to be our loss. A true, deep, platonic friendship between a man and a woman is a fertile, largely unexplored subject for a movie; when a movie does bring up the topicWhen Harry Met Sally comes to mindit’s usually just to dismiss the idea as impossible. (A rare exception: the wonderful scenes between John Cusack and Lili Taylor in Say Anything..., a movie that looks better every year.) The scenes detailing Alyssa and Holden’s growing friendship, filled with candor, mutual curiosity, and a sweet tolerance for one another’s misconceptions, are so unusual that it’s a bit of a letdown when she responds to his overturesespecially when we’ve been led to believe Alyssa’s gay.
Smith isn’t really interested in exploring issues of sexual preferenceobviously, since lesbians don’t go around, in the terms of Seinfeld’s Elaine, “switching teams.” To his credit, he makes it clear that Alyssa’s turnabout is the resolution of her own long-standing confusion, not an option available to every gay woman. Still, the worst scenes in the movie concern characters who really are gay, especially a fellow comic-book artist, Hooper (Dwight Ewell), who hides his lifestyle behind a Black Power pose: His sexuality is made as fake as his politicsand twice as negligible. And when Alyssa’s lesbian friends ruefully bemoan her boyfriend, as if they’d lost another convert (“Another one bites the dust”), Smith’s lack of firsthand observation really shows. Nor is he above exploiting Banky’s crude gay-bashing for cheap laughs, which leaves a really sour taste.
Smith is right on target, however, when describing the baggage of ego, self-doubt, and sexual insecurity that crashes down on guys when they open their hearts. In a perceptive twist, it turns out not to be Alyssa’s homosexuality that terrifies Holden, but her heterosexualitythe idea that he’s not conquering virgin territory. Smith lets Holden play out his stupid double standard to its wrenchingly absurd extreme, and he doesn’t chicken out. By the haunting ending, Smith lets us understand his self-destructive attitudes so well that the folly of what he’s doing almost makes us physically sick.
Apart from the reservations above, Chasing Amy marks an advance in Kevin Smith’s talents and ambitions over both of his previous films. His ability to shape a script needs work, and his visual sense hasn’t developed much beyond straight-ahead shots. He also has a hard time letting go of bad ideas, such as the embarrassing scene that intercuts a romantic argument with a hockey gamein front of an audience, no less. But his scenes with comic-convention dweebs and slacker lowlifes have the ring of truth, and the jabbing banter between Banky and Holden captures all the tension and complexity of a close creative partnership.
Most important, Alyssa, realized in a captivating performance by Joey Lauren Adams, is the first fascinating woman character Smith has ever deviseda giant leap forward. He seems to have created her to shoot down all of Holden’s bass-ackward notions of sexuality and love, and Adams fleshes her out with endearingly unpredictable line readings and no-holds-barred emotion. It’s easy to see how she’d overturn Holden’s world; she’s so vivid that we miss her when the movie ends.
Appropriately, it’s Silent Bob, the character Smith played in Clerks and in Mallrats, who finally explains to Holden how much Alyssa’s worth. Kevin Smith’s gift for raunchy dialogue and taboo-smashing slapstick is no secret: There’s a wild conversation here about cunnilingus, staged as a parody of the scar-comparing scene in Jaws, that gets funnier and grosser with can-you-top-that? abandon. The surprise is the way that Smith’s characters, their confusion, and their wrongheaded choices stay with you. Chasing Amy is as messy and conflicted as its lovesick protagonists, but it has a bittersweet sense of finality, as if Smith were finally ready to engage a world outside comic books and convenience stores. He may stumble pretty often in Chasing Amy, but at least he’s stumbling forward.Jim Ridley
Look, it’s not brain surgery. You take a boat, populate it with a ragtag crew, place the whole shebang on a jungle river, and then drop a giant snake in the waterthat’s gold, baby. All Anaconda had to do was keep the pace tight, add a few quotable lines of dialogue, whip that snake at the camera every 15 minutes, then sit back and count the money.
But, alas, good junk is hard to find these days. Anaconda greets the dawn with a breath of fire but goes out with a wheeze. The story is simple, even primala documentary filmmaker (Jennifer Lopez), her cinematographer (Ice Cube), and her sound man (Owen Wilson) head down the Amazon with an anthropology professor (Eric Stoltz) to track a long-lost tribe of hunter-gatherers; along the way, their craft is commandeered by an eccentric snake poacher (Jon Voight) who steers the motley bunch into the path of a giant, man-eating Anaconda. It’s Jaws, Moby Dick, and Deliverance, with a healthy dose of Sssssss stirred in.
So what goes wrong? The same thing that went wrong with The Relic, which set a hypothalamus-eating hairy rhino loose at a stuffy museum reception but couldn’t scare up any fun. It’s also the same thing that sinks Double Team, which squanders a colony of terrorist-fighting ex-spies, a cloister of cybermonks, and a buff, tight-faced Mickey Rourke. Call it a lack of awarenessnone of the directors in question seems to have had the liberating realization that he’s peddling crap.
Tsui Hark gets a break because Double Team is the Hong Kong director’s first English-language script; but The Relic’s Peter Hyams and Anaconda’s Luis Llosa are B-movie vets and should feel free to mix it up. The only people who seem to be having any fun in Anaconda are Voight (who completely butchers a Paraguayan accent and smiles with downturned lips) and Wilson (who revives his classic character from Bottle Rocket during one hilarious speech).
The other problem with this latest swarm of killer Bs is their effects. I like fire as much as the next rubbernecker, but I’m just about sick of the ubiquitous “outrunning the fireball” scene in action movies. (Lord, how I dread Con Air.) Anaconda brings out the fire, naturally, but its big effect is the title character. The Anaconda itself is an unwieldy combination of computer animation and animatronics. As a CGI, the snake moves like quicksilver, but the animatronic version is more like a dried-out garden hose. Put the two together and you have a monster that speeds to the attack and then limply lolls its head back and forth.
Anaconda is not as grim and choppy as The Relic, and it’s not as incomprehensible as Double Team; but it’s also not as gripping and sinister as Scream, or as clever as last year’s king Bs The Arrival, The Phantom, and The Trigger Effect. It’s just not with it. The film rolls slowly, inexorably down the river.Noel Murray
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