His first motion picture set outside of the View Askew universe, writer-director Kevin Smith (2001's "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back
") has said 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 tone, "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 storyshameless 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 "Jersey 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?