• U.S.


4 minute read
Richard Schickel

Testosterone is the young man’s curse and the moviemaker’s blessing. It imparts to the male teenager that preoccupying randiness that drives him to adventures and alliances he’s going to regret someday–at best with wry embarrassment, at worst with a sense of loss verging on the tragic. Yet those rioting hormones also power tales of the young and restless that can sell profitably to the young and restless–in other words, date movies for the under-25s.

There are essentially two ways of handling this hot stuff. Gingerly–oh, all right, “sensitively”–as writer Ken Hixon and director Pat O’Connor do in Inventing the Abbotts. And raunchily–oh, all right, dirty-mouthed and in your face–as writer-director Kevin Smith does in Chasing Amy. On the whole, Smith’s is the better way–funnier, smarter and a lot more truthful about the whole experience of being led around by your…er, base instincts.

In fairness, O’Connor and Hixon have to deal with more distractions than Smith does. Their film, based on the Sue Miller short story, is a period piece, set in 1957, when, especially in small, middle-American towns–they inform us, with a rather touching air of discovery–lots of people were repressed and also more class-conscious than they should have been. Jacey Holt (Billy Crudup) is unafflicted by the former condition, but the latter has him distinctly under the weather. He lives poor with his much nicer younger brother Doug (Joaquin Phoenix) and his widowed mother (Kathy Baker) and fixates on the wealthy Abbotts. He’s convinced that Lloyd (Will Patton), the paterfamilias, got rich by stealing an invention from Jacey’s late father and then had a ruinous affair with his mom. In repayment, Jacey will therefore seduce Eleanor (Jennifer Connelly), the least stable of the three Abbott daughters. And then her older sister Alice (Joanna Going), and finally her younger one (Liv Tyler), who happens to be his brother’s beloved. The kid is to middle-class propriety what Genghis Khan once was to the trembling civilizations of Asia.

Yet the movie seems unaware of the depths of Jacey’s sexual vengefulness. It’s played as romantic rebellion, something he’ll outgrow. Meantime ain’t he cute, girls, all broody and snotty–just the thing to give your parents plenty of sleepless nights. What Inventing the Abbotts is aware of are all those lock-up-your-daughters movies of the 1950s, to which for some dotty reason it is eager to prove its superiority of understanding. But the goofy hysteria of something like A Summer Place was infinitely more entertaining and emotionally authentic than the distant smugness of this failed clone.

Kevin Smith, by contrast, owes nothing to nobody. As he proved with a few bucks and some black-and-white film stock in Clerks, he’s an original, a deadpan, dead-on observer of the whole Gen-X mess. In Chasing Amy, he has moved up slightly–color film, more than one setting, scenes with actual extras in them. But he’s still a guy making two-shots of people talking about their troubles, working them through on the basis of faulty information and silly suppositions.

Case in point: Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck). He draws underground comic books with his boyhood pal Banky (Jason Lee). Then he meets Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), also a comix artist, and falls into obsession. The problem is, she’s a lesbian. Well, nobody’s perfect. And, indeed, she’s not perfectly gay, for eventually she succumbs to Holden’s passion. This makes him feel terrific–the superstud who has conquered the unconquerable. Except that Banky–who has some homoerotic issues of his own to sort out–discovers otherwise. Alyssa has had male lovers in the past. This devastates Holden and wrecks both relationships.

It’s a sad and fiercely told story. Smith and his actors catch the stunned manner of a culture that thinks postmodernism is a synonym for postemotionalism. They’re always trying to be coolly affectless about hotly affecting issues, hoping blunt, acceptant talk about sexual congress will disarm the subtle pains it always implies. This is a newer, more interesting form of innocence than the ’50s kind, and when their true feelings burst through, their breakdowns and breakups are really scary. Like Inventing the Abbotts, this movie knows that the questing phallus is the main source of youthful romantic angst. But Chasing Amy doesn’t try to shift the blame for its heedlessness to its times or the social structure. It doesn’t believe there’s magic in true love, either. That makes it a true movie rarity: a brutally honest romance. If you loved Sleepless in Seattle, you’ll just hate it.

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