New Films: Clerks meet Tom Stoppard in New Jersey

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Chasing Amy (18)

Directed by Kevin Smith

In the opening scene of Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy there's a hint that the 27-year-old New Jersey auteur has taken a step forward since his famously foul-mouthed 1993 debut Clerks. We're at a comic-book convention where a sweaty fan is enthusing to one of the authors, Holden (Ben Affleck), about his superhero characters: "They're like Cheech and Chong meet Bill and Ted." "I like to think of them," replies Holden, "as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet Vladimir and Estragon." The implication is not just that Smith has been reading plays - his films have always been theatrical in that they are driven by dialogue - but that he has found a new, darker and more complex template for his examinations of male camaraderie.

Like the convenience-store shop assistants of Clerks and the shopping- mall slackers of Smith's justly neglected follow-up Mallrats, Holden spends his time swapping graphic tales of sexual misadventure and elaborate deconstructions of Star Wars with his best friend, Banky (Jason Lee), the colourist who inks in his drawings. But when Holden starts dating Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), a fellow comic-book artist and - gasp - a lesbian, Banky's reaction isn't to slap him on the back and hail a victory for penetrative sex. Instead, furiously jealous, he does his best to break up the relationship, digging up dirt on Alyssa and unleashing tirades of abuse that are as hilarious as they are grotesquely homophobic.

Smith's dialogue is as rich in expletives as ever, but his wordplay is growing more sophisticated. (Perhaps he has been reading Stoppard after all.) When Alyssa talks about making out with another girl, Banky protests, "Shouldn't you at least modify the term `fuck' with something like `fist'?" But this sort of verbal dexterity isn't just showing off. Chasing Amy makes explicit what Clerks merely suggested, that the relentless posturing and spieling of these young men is just a way of fending off emotion. For all its crude banter and cunnilingus jokes, Chasing Amy is at heart a surprisingly poignant account of how mistrust destroys love and friendship. It's also extremely funny.

Last Summer in the Hamptons (15)

Directed by Henry Jaglom

The sunlit Long Island settings and monied bohemian milieu of Henry Jaglom's Last Summer in the Hamptons couldn't seem further removed from Smith's world of amusement arcades and comic-book conventions. But, like Smith, Jaglom is a committed independent who, for three decades now, has made his films with his friends, as cheaply as possible, and absolutely on his own terms. And both share a scrappy shooting style that aims to capture the words being spoken, and little more.

In Last Summer in the Hamptons, three generations of a theatrical dynasty congregate for their annual production in the garden of their rambling summer home, which is up for sale. The play they have chosen for their swansong is The Seagull, and Chekhovian echoes abound. There's the charismatic matriarch (Viveca Lindfors), a legendary stage actress whose three daughters and many grandchildren struggle both to emulate and to escape her. And there's the gun which, having been shown in the first act, must of course be used in the third (as it is, in a moment borrowed from the other master who casts his shadow here, Jean Renoir.)

Jaglom, who studied at the Actors' Studio himself, has great fun puncturing the pretensions of the self-congratulatory thespians, for whom "You're so talented" is as natural a greeting as "Good morning". He also has a real affection for them, actresses in particular, and draws heartfelt, revealing performances from, among others, Melissa Leo (the tough Baltimore cop in Homicide: Life on the Street) as the incestuously inclined granddaughter overwhelmed by the prospect of playing Masha, and Victoria Foyt (Jaglom's latest wife, muse and, here, co-writer) as the Hollywood action heroine who dreams of doing experimental theatre in the Midwest. But the film belongs to Lindfors, the radiant Swedish actress who died in 1995, shortly after the film was shot. In a fitting tribute, she enjoys some delicate moments watching her younger self on video, opposite Ronald Reagan and Errol Flynn in the 1940s, Hollywood romances that made her a star.

Trial and Error (12)

Directed by Jonathan Lynn

Mavericks like Smith and Jaglom only seem more valuable in a week when the mainstream Hollywood products are so lame. In Trial and Error the dependable Jeff Daniels is once again reduced, as in Dumb and Dumber, to playing straight man to a TV comic, here Michael Richards. Teaming one of the stars of Seinfeld with the man behind Yes Minister must have seemed to the British director Jonathan Lynn like a foolproof recipe for smart comedy. But while the highly contrived premise, about an actor (Richards) who has to fight a trial in place of his incapacitated buddy (Daniels), might have promised some sly insights into the way trial lawyers have to perform, all it delivers is a tiresome courtroom farce that re-hashes the city-lawyer-in-the-sticks formula of Lynn's earlier My Cousin Vinny.

Incognito (15)

Directed by John Badham

Another British-born Hollywood jack-of-all-trades who seems to have lost his touch, John Badham returns to his native land with Incognito, but it's hard to imagine any director with a less convincing grasp of modern English life. An archaic travelogue thriller about a brilliant American forger (Jason Patric) who comes to Europe to fake a Rembrandt, it opens with an establishing shot of the Houses of Parliament, followed closely by Tower Bridge, before heading to Paris, where Patric, inevitably, strolls by the Seine and wears a beret. The Swiss actress Irene Jacob, meanwhile, turns up as the Dutch expert called in to authenticate Patric's fake, before the two of them get handcuffed together for a 39 Steps-style chase round the pubs of the Home Counties, pursued by a pistol-packing Cork Street dealer. Despite having Rod Steiger's eyes, Patric's Rembrandt looks quite plausible; as for Incognito, it's a certified fake. How it came to be shown at the London Film Festival this week is anyone's guess.

Full Contact (18)

directed by Ringo Lam

The Hong Kong director Ringo Lam recently followed his compatriot John Woo to Hollywood and, on the evidence of his 1992 film Full Contact, released in the wake of last week's Maximum Risk, that's not the only way he has copied him. Wood's favourite star, Chow Yun Fat, plays the bouncer-turned- armed robber who is double-crossed and left for dead in Bangkok before returning to a rainswept Hong Kong in search of vengeance. Lam's shoot- outs have a pyrotechnic flair, the camera hurtling through the air in pursuit of slow-motion bullets, but in between them the relentless, blood- spurting brutality and squealing electric guitar soundtrack make Woo look like a master of understatement.

All films on release today.

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