Review by Dustin Putman
2 stars out of 4
His first motion picture set outside of the View Askew universe, writer-director
Kevin Smith (2001's "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back") has sa id that
he conceived of the kinder and gentler "Jersey Girl" based on his
response to becoming a father. His fatal error, however, is that he
has mistaken maturity for old Hollywood cliches and conventions. There
are a few honest moments to be found in "Jersey Girl," but its trite
plot devices ring with a resounding falseness. And instead of giving
his underwritten characters room to live and breathe as fresh individuals,
Smith has put them at the strict mercy of his screenplay. "Jersey
Girl" may be Kevin Smith's most technically polished films to date
(and with a cinematographer like the renowned Vilmos Zsigmond at the
helm, there is good reason for this), but it is also one of his weakest.
Ollie Trinke (Ben Affleck) is a workaholic Manhattan publicist with
a beloved newlywed wife, Gertrude (Jennifer Lopez), and a baby on
the way. His dreams for the future are shattered, however, when Gertrude
unexpectedly dies during childbirth, leaving Ollie with a daughter
to raise on his own. Under the stress of caring for child Gertie,
he makes a fatal error at a Hard Rock Cafe press junket by insulting
the guests and star Will Smith and is promptly fired. Moving back
in with his father, Bart (George Carlin), in New Jersey, Ollie vows
to be the best father to Gertie that he possibly can.
Switch forward seven years, Ollie now works with his father for the
sanitation department, and Gertie (Raquel Castro) has grown into a
headstrong, precocious first grader. Ollie, who deals with his celibacy
by frequently renting porn, has a chance meeting with video store
clerk Maya (Liv Tyler). She is a graduate student who wants to use
Ollie as one of her subjects on a study concerning masturbation, but
in the process grows to sympathize with his sole devotion to Gertie.
Maya might be just the right girl for him, but first Ollie has to
come to terms with the life-altering consequences his wife's death has brought him.
With a less intrusive, more naturalistic to ne, "Jersey Girl" could
have been a deft, character-driven slice-of-life, something along
the lines of writer-director Kevin Smith's best feature, 1997's "Chasing
Amy." Instead, he time and time again uses the oldest and most tired
of cliches to tell his story—shameless things he seemed to be against
prior to this film. Watch Ollie catch his daughter and a neighborhood
boy playing a game of "You Show Me Yours, I'll Show You Mine," and
then sit them down for a serious interrogation. Watch as Gertie later
catches Ollie and Maya hiding half-nude in the shower, only to sit
them down for the same talk she heard her father give her. Har-har-har.
Most disheartening of all is a climax that not only fits in a school
play, but follows it up with the "Slow Clap," that annoying movie
cliche where one audience member starts to clap slowly until the whole
auditorium has erupted in cheerful applause. Give me a break.
It is a shame, too, because there are individual scenes in "Jerse
y Girl" that are incendiary in their beautiful simplicity. Unfortunately,
most of them succeed based on a great visual composition, the use
of an overscoring song cue, or through the emotion of a performance.
Very few of them, save for a poignant early set-piece in which Ollie
presents a tearful monologue to infant Gertie, actually rely on caring
about the people or the plight they are involved in. Ultimately, most
of the characters' actions are frustratingly implausible, such as
the way Maya brazenly offers herself to Ollie by saying, "We're gonna
get you some sex," without any attempt on Smith's part to develop
her beyond the requirements of the script.
Ben Affleck is a "Movie Star" whose depth in creating an effective
performance is too often overlooked. I defy anyone to watch "Chasing
Amy," 2000's "Bounce," or 2002's "Changing Lanes" and honestly say
that he is a bad actor. As the grieving Ollie Trinke, Affleck is once
again very good, infusing his role with the believability of a man
unable to move on in his life, but connected to his daughter by a
genuine love and care. Underused as she is, Liv Tyler (2003's "The
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King") gets in several touching
moments, even if her relationship with Ollie lacks the screen time
required to give it the gravitas yearned for. As young Gertie, newcomer
Raquel Castro is convincing without being cloying. Surprisingly, the
two standout performances are given by usual leading man actors in
minor roles. As Ollie's devoted assistant, Jason Biggs hasn't been
this engaging since 2001's "American Pie 2." And playing himself in
an important late scene, Will Smith (2003's " Bad Boys II") is exceptional.
His talent long buried in one special effects extravaganza after the
next, Smith lends his single scene with an effortless magnetism and
astuteness he hasn't shown since 1993's "Six Degrees of Separation." He's that good.
There is one big laugh in "Jersey Girl," the culmination of a gruesome
"Sweeney Todd" musical number the cast performs before an unsuspecting
audience of elementary school parents. This wicked gag hints at what
"Jersey Girl" might have been, had Kevin Smith stuck to his guns and
not lost the edge needed for this bittersweet story to ring true.
Instead, the film is too cute by a half, downright corny in spots
and merely unbelievable in others. Save for those seldom truthful
interludes that sneak in every once in a while, there is little evidence
that Kevin Smith is actually a father at all. This, indeed, is his
calamitous pitfall. "Jersey Girl" is marginally likable, but it is
a misfire in Smith's career, nonetheless. And although the two have
little in common, 2003's vastly underrated "Gigli" was the better
film. How's that for irony?
Copyright © 2004 Dustin Putman