His first film, Clerks, was so chockful of obscenities it’d make Larry Flynt wash out his mouth with soap. His second film, Mallrats, was so savaged by critics he issued an apology at last year’s Independent Spirit Awards (”I don’t know what I was thinking,” he admitted). And now, with his third film, Chasing Amy, Kevin Smith is crossing a line not even Howard Stern has dared to traverse — he’s cast his girlfriend as a lesbian.
”Actually,” the soft-spoken 26-year-old writer-director offers of his own oeuvre, ”if you scrape away the dick jokes, the cynicism, the vulgar language, you’re left with really sweet movies about guys who just want to fall in love.”
True enough. And Amy, which opened April 4, may be the sweetest of them all — not to mention the most successful, at least if that standing ovation it received at the Sundance festival is any indication. A sort of tongue-in-cheek Love Story for the sexually dysfunctional ’90s, it’s Smith’s most maturely written, deftly lensed film so far, redeeming the promise he made with the critically lauded Clerks and leaving the sour memory of Mallrats far behind. Filmed for Miramax for a mere $250,000, it stars Joey Lauren Adams (she spent a night under John Travolta’s wings in Michael and has been Smith’s significant other for the last two years) and Ben Affleck (he’ll be a lead in Gus Van Sant’s upcoming Good Will Hunting) as orientation-crossed lovers in a boy-meets-lesbian, boy-loses-lesbian romantic comedy loaded with wit, charm, and unbelievably filthy dialogue, including an epic interlocution on the perils of oral sex.
”I like to write stuff that you don’t usually see on the screen,” Smith says, picking at a chicken sandwich at a diner around the corner from his Red Bank, N.J., production offices. ”The conversations you have with your friends — the frank sexual discussions — you never see that. When was the last time you remember anyone talking about going down on a woman in a movie?”
That would be 1994, when Miramax released Smith’s clever convenience-store comedy, Clerks — and instantly ran into trouble with the MPAA ratings board. Made for $27,000, mostly charged to Smith’s credit cards, the film contained not a single nude scene, but briefly became a cause célèbre when it was rated NC-17 because of its way-raunchy language (the board ultimately backed down and gave it an R). Mallrats, a $6 million comedy with Shannen Doherty, almost turned him into a cause obscure, bombing at the box office and drawing some of the most vicious reviews of 1995. ”I wanted to make an ’80s-style, R-rated teen flick,” Smith explains. ”But that genre is dead and some things are better off dead.”
Of course, a film about a straight guy wooing a lesbian is bound to catch some flak as well. ”The complaint would be that if she were a real lesbian, she wouldn’t be with this guy,” he says. ”But the lesbian angle is a red herring. It’s really a movie about a guy who fancies himself liberal but is forced to face his conservatism. He can’t deal with his girlfriend’s past. To me, that’s the conundrum.”