I applaud Kevin Smith, creator of the whole line of raw, adolescently-jaded movies such as Clerks, Dogma, et al, for attempting to branch out and sophisticate his work. I really do. I think that those films are almost always entertaining and occasionally brilliant. I find his indulgent duo of Jay and Silent Bob (whom he plays himself) original and humorous. I would expect him to be able to grow and mature...and he has. But not enough for as serious an attempt as Jersey Girl.
Ollie Trinke (Ben Affleck) works in NYC as busy young music publicist with his also wealthy, and hard-working, wife Gertrude Steiney (Jennifer Lopez) by his side. After she dies in childbirth this new single dad sees his perfect world crash as he loses his job, for an ill-timed outburst and moves home to his father's (George Carlin) house in small town New Jersey. Seven years later, he still desires to return to his former glory in the perfect job in his beloved city. And so he continues to subject himself to fruitless and painful interviews, but is repeatedly rejected as both a hero and a pariah of everyone in the PR business. Instead, he drives a Highland Borough street sweeper like his dad. His precocious daughter Gertie (Raquel Castro) is his impetus for meeting Maya (Liv Tyler), the charming and sex-positive grad student who works at the local video store—and subsequently steals the show. As Ollie struggles to find his path in life, he discovers that his desires often clash with his responsibilities, as well as the happiness of those around him.
Jersey Girl suffers from the plague of simplicity that can attack films from the minds of smart comedy writers that have ventured into the comedic drama genre. If I didn't have to worry about taking anything seriously, small bits of the unlikely wouldn't bother me. I expect more here. Every portion of the Trinke's lives seems either all too easy or all too hard to feel genuine. Before Ollie loses his job he abuses his father's good nature by leaving Gertie in his care 24/7, despite repeated complaints. It is easy to see that the arrangement cannot last forever and I kept wondering why this extremely wealthy publicist didn't have sense enough to hire any outside help. Wouldn't they have hired a nanny even before Gertrude's death? And for the next seven years, Ollie drives a street sweeper, which he is clearly very unhappy doing. I know the economy may be bad now, but could a well-known and highly educated man not have gotten any other job in the New York metro area in the mid-to-late 90s? Did he never consider leaving the New York area? And yet, on the flipside Gertie's attitude toward life is joyously and insatiably and optimistic. This very well-adjusted little girl will never need to thumb through the pages of Reviving Ophelia, despite the fact that there are no women in her life, her mother died giving birth to her, and her father resents her for taking his life away. And yes, he even shouts this at her. Whereas the 2 cuties in In America really stole my heart, Castro was so sweetly perfect that she almost began to annoy me. She always had brilliant things to say out of nowhere, always forgave entirely, and was seldom difficult or rambunctious. She sang flawlessly (as did all the working-class Jerseyites) in her school performance from Sweeney Todd and oh-so-carefully courted each of the adult characters in her world until she had them wrapped around her little finger. (As a sidenote, kudos to the cast-master for finding a kid that really did resemble Jennifer Lopez, and yet, why does she look so many shades lighter on the promotional poster?)
On the other hand, the wistful and diverse rock soundtrack really worked. It included Amy Mann, Pete Townshend, Fleetwood Mac, and the appropriately blue collar NJ sounds of Bruce Springstein. I could believe that Ollie and the supporting cast were hearing the same background in their heads, and it added some depth to their characters, though they were already well-crafted. Affleck's acting was good, if not exceptional, but his character seemed to give up his dreams too easily. I came away without a clear sense that Ollie made the right decisions. And while
Jersey Girl did convince me how much Kevin Smith values and adores family life, I was unconvinced that was how Ollie really felt.
Tyler, however, never faltered in her role as smart, witty, compassionate and completely irresistible grad student. And her performance is superb. While working at the movie store, she snares Ollie into an interview for her research into family men and porn. Their first meeting is full of cute awkwardness as they dance around Ollie's lack of sex and Maya's need to masturbate twice daily. To this Ollie wittily replies that she's in danger of getting carpel tunnel syndrome. By the end of this exchange, even I was swept off my feet, though her attentions weren't directed toward me. Though subsequent romantic encounters are thwarted, Maya remains an important part of the Trinkes' life and her sincerity comes through every scene in which she appears, even if her lines are minimal. Though she is still portrayed as attractive in Jersey Girl, she isn't followed by the burden of exalted beauty as she is in many other films, a main example being the Lord of the Rings trilogy. She and Affleck also have much better on screen chemistry, though we never get to see them do it, than they did in Armageddon. Their kind and intense flirting seemed so palpable I almost wonder about a real life attraction.
Lastly, comedy is always important in a Kevin Smith film and this aspect is, for the most part, done well here. Cameos by the insulted Fresh Prince, as well as Smith regulars Matt Damon and Jason Lee, made me chuckle. Childhood fascination with body parts never fails to entertain. Even the ridiculousness of the name of Lopez's character, Gertrude Steiney, was pretty damn funny, although I don't think they play it up enough for anyone to notice until they get home and say "Oh yeah, that was kinda funny".
As a first foray into a more serious genre, Jersey Girl is not an overwhelming success but neither does it bomb. It is also a film that encompasses the boyish humor that Kevin Smith does so well combined with chick flick sentimentality. That is, it's a good compromise date film...