WIDE ANGLE
Kevin Smith's career has had more ups and downs than a rollercoaster - and he's still only on his third movie. But, with `Chasing Amy', can he make good again?

As the credits roll for Kevin Smith's new movie, Chasing Amy, there's one which reads "to all the critics who hated our last film - all is forgiven". It's a magnanimous message from the 27-year-old director whose compact career has rollercoastered through some of the best and worst reviews the industry has to offer.

Smith (right) exploded onto the US indie scene in 1994 with Clerks, a grainy, foul-mouthed masterpiece, shot largely at night in the New Jersey convenience store where he then worked. Infused with Smith's peculiar brand of excoriating pop-philosophy, the $27,000 film recouped a cool $3 million at the box office. The surprise profits allowed Smith to "buy a nicer car and move out of my parents house", but he didn't go far. Choosing to remain with his family and friends in deepest, darkest suburbia, Smith announced plans to shoot the second part of his "New Jersey trilogy". "It worked for George Lucas," he quipped, "why shouldn't it work for me?"

Sadly, his second feature, Mallrats, was no Empire Strikes Back, as Smith freely admits. "I made an 1980s titty teen movie, y'know?" he drawls. "They stopped making those for a reason." The backlash was vicious. "We got completely trounced," he remembers. "Some of the reviews were really savage. What I found weird was the way some critics wrote about it as though it was some kind of betrayal. It was like, `Kevin Smith - we put him where he is today and he goes and makes this kind of crap', like I should've known better. I mean, last time I looked, Clerks wasn't Shakespeare. Mallrats didn't seem that much of a reach to me."

For Smith, one of the few positive things to come from Mallrats was working with Ben Affleck, Jason Lee and Joey Lauren Adams. He became friends with Affleck and Lee, began a relationship with Adams and has cast all three in his latest feature, Chasing Amy.

Set once more in New Jersey, the movie centres on the uncomfortable triangle made by homophobic Banky (Lee), his childhood friend Holden (Affleck), and Holden's lesbian love-interest Alyssa (Adams). Smith wrote the film as a way of working through his own relationship problems with Adams, but just how much of his smart-assed meditation on romance, promiscuity and homophobia is lifted from life? "It's autobiographical to the degree that I was very much like Holden," admits Smith, "scared of my girlfriend's past and afraid of not measuring up. But I have never fallen in love with a lesbian, as far as I know."

Few directors would be brave enough to cast their girlfriend in a film about their own failing relationship, but Smith is generous in his assessment of his star. "In the past, Joey has always been cast as a one-note pop tart who comes on, says a few cute lines, takes her shirt off, then gets out of the picture," he says. "When I met her, I knew she was capable of much more." Things did sometimes get "frayed" on set, he says, as personal relationships overflowed into professional ones, but for the most part, making the movie was fun.

Smith and Adams have now split up, but the rather public catharsis of Chasing Amy has at least repaired the director's relationship with the critics - who have fallen in love with him all over again, and eagerly await his next film, Dogma, "a supernatural road movie" starring Emma Thompson as God. So is this the end of Smith's suburban sojourn, or is he, like Lucas, planning some prequels? "Not prequels," he laughs. "But I'm sure I'll make more films about the same kinda stuff. I grew up in the 'burbs and I still live here, so why not set my films here? Suburbia gets a bad rep, it's like nothing exciting ever happens. In a way that's true. Nothing much does happen, but it depends on your idea of `exciting'."

`Chasing Amy' is released on Friday 14 Nov

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