starring Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, George Carlin, Raquel Castro
written and directed by Kevin Smith
by Walter Chaw Self-satisfied and self-congratulatory, Kevin Smith's films generally give off the feeling of a by-invitation-only party attended by Smith, Matt Damon, Jason Lee, Ben Affleck when he's not gambling, and Jason Mewes when he's not in prison or missing. Apparently a smart guy, the moments in his films that suggest evidence of that brightness are overwhelmed by repetitive profanities, puerile devices (i.e. Dogma's shit monster), cameos by his cool friends, and old jokes retold in coarse fashion. He's the love child of David Mamet and a thirteen-year-old virgin at the mercy of pals handsomer and more popular than he, always trying to impress with his blue toughness without the maturity to understand that what made him cool way back when with Clerks wasn't his scatological horniness, but his intelligence and flashes of observational sophistication.
Jersey Girl, not to be mistaken for either the 1992 Jami Gertz movie or the 1980 Tom Waits song, is a Kevin Smith movie in all its over-written, half-baked smugness, only with an added thin shellac of honey-glaze. Dedicated to his recently passed father and inspired by his wife and young child, it's not sweet so much as saccharine, mummifying every potentially human moment with a WB power ballad and ending, as all bad movies do (see also: Love Actually), at a children's pageant. What should be a personal, emotional journey is instead a ninety-minute schmaltz-walk. I suspect if it were possible to taste Jersey Girl, it would taste a lot like cheese laced with a lethal dose of pompous self-righteousness. Some of that has to do with the screenplay, some of it has to do with the direction and performances, and a lot of it, I suspect, has to do with the changes Miramax demanded of the film after the classic swan dive of Affleck and Jennifer Lopez's last film together. Nothing poleaxes something a little different than the effect of the possibility of financial Gehenna on the Weinsteins' already itchy scissor-fingers.
Ollie (Affleck) is a successful New York publicist married to baby-talking Gertrude (Lopez). When Gigli flopped, the advertising tactic for Jersey Girl began to revolve around first the promise that Lopez's already minimal role had been shaved, then the reassurance that Lopez dies in childbirth. Smith, because he's pretty sure his audience is really stupid, cut out a wedding scene, too, not wanting to "confuse" anybody incapable of separating reality from fiction. (Physician, heal thyself.) Ollie, widowed and a new father, loses his job when he makes cogent comments about Will Smith (leading to two opportunities for Smith to indulge in cameos: one from Damon, the other from the Fresh Prince himself), and finds himself a street sweeper in Jersey and one hell of a nice dad to little Gertie (Raquel Castro). Will he, when the call of the big city lures Ollie back, choose the high life or Hooterville with his crusty pa (George Carlin), video store girlfriend (Liv Tyler, almost not playing an alien this time), and insipid Star Wars-quoting moppet? You decide.
Working against the piece is the idea that there's simply too much baggage for the film to overcome. Consider that the funniest moment in the picture involves Will Smith talking about the hardship of cranking out blockbusters, "Know what I mean?"--and Affleck's character answering, "No, what's that like?" Hilarious for all the wrong reasons, the sad fact is that anyone with even a passing familiarity with popular culture will be basking in the transparent irony of Bennifer's (twice-doomed) smoochy-coochie, as well as the sad confirmation that what was a surprise for them is astonishingly clear to the rest of the world: There's no chemistry there, just an uncomfortable working agreement to be celebrity lovers. Lack of chemistry also afflicts the film's ostensible love story between Ollie and Tyler's Maya: Here Smith's dedication to low cuteness undermines their initial courtship (she's doing a graduate school study of masturbation and porn), while the rest of it distracts with Affleck and Tyler's disturbing duelling chins. Little Castro (too much like Lopez, which is right for the role but wrong for humankind) walks the right side of the insipid kid actor line most of the time, and Carlin reminds that the only time he only sort-of sucked was as Rufus in the Bill and Ted movies.
It's tempting to like Jersey Girl in the way that it's tempting to like all of Smith's films. Smith's got some talent, for sure, but he's also got a bad habit of allowing his personal insecurities to manifest themselves as humiliating overcompensation in his pictures--he seems to be bullying you into liking him and, failing that, reminding you of how many other people like him. Smith resists the juvenilia for the most part this time around, but replaces it with cheap emotional swells scored by, I kid you not, Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide." Between the two, I have to say I prefer the shit monsters, but what I really wish is that Smith would provide me with a third option. Originally published: March 26, 2004.
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