At a glance, Holden (Ben Affleck) and Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), the ardently embattled couple in Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy (Miramax, R), look made for each other. They're in their 20s, from neighboring towns in New Jersey, and both are successful comic-book artists the perfect scruffy-but-chic, lowbrow-boho profession for the '90s. He's downtown handsome, tall and lean, with a goatee and a loft studio and a look of hungry-eyed avidity that barely conceals his romantic yearnings. She's downtown babelicious, with honey-blond hair, an oversize pout, and a slurry little-girl voice that's both come-on and ironic armor. The two meet, flirt, and appear to be heading toward a fast amorous clinch. Then Alyssa drops the bombshell: She only likes to sleep with girls. Welcome to the first boy-meets-lesbian romantic comedy.
In Chasing Amy, you can feel the American-indie zeitgeist rotating on its axis, from the pop-saturated cool of Tarantino-style mayhem to the scrappy earnestness of gender politics. Alyssa, falling into a friendship with Holden, quickly figures out that she's attracted to him after all. But that just marks the beginning of their problems. She's got to justify her love to her lesbian circle, and to herself and he has to come to grips with her past, which turns out to be an even bigger jolt than her original declaration of lesbianism. Smith, who made the cult convenience-store comedy Clerks (as well as the disreputably funny Mallrats), writes dialogue that's dense and showy and studded with raunchy gag lines. Porn is a pet Smith subject, and he's created one character, Holden's acidly misanthropic comic-book partner, Banky (Jason Lee), who sprinkles around words like fag and dyke. (You get the feeling that Smith wants to look askance at Banky and have his low chuckles, too.) The movie includes a delectable turn by Dwight Ewell as a black gay comic-book artist who pretends to be a stoic militant as well as a hilarious scene-stealing duet from Jason Mewes and Smith himself, who reprise their Clerks roles as the slackest of slackers.
Still, Smith isn't just fooling around anymore. In Chasing Amy, the romantic confusion and soul-searching, the explorations of desire and sexual ''correctness'' all feel messy and passionate and true. The two stars make the most of their roles. Adams looks and sounds like a cross between Ellen Barkin and the pop singer Jewel, and if her winsome baby-doll earnestness is occasionally cloying, it also reveals surprising depth. (She throws one teary tantrum that's an all-out heartbreaker.) Affleck, wholesome and quick-witted, makes Holden a smooth operator and then shows us the sexual insecurities of a stud who has more than met his match. In Chasing Amy, Holden and Alyssa don't just explore their relationship. They work at it, like two dogs chewing on a rubber bone. Kevin Smith is working, too to shed his bratty-macho Gen-X skin. His efforts can be exhausting, but by the end you feel he's truly done it. The hit-and-run outlandishness of Clerks was a stunt. With Chasing Amy, Smith has made his first real movie. B+