In 10 Words or Less
A kinder, gentler Kevin Smith creates a touching comedy
This is my admission: I am a Kevin Smith fan. There's no getting past that fact. From the first time I watched Clerks in a friend's dorm room, I was hooked, and I have even been accused of patterning my writing after him, though, in truth, any similarities exist because we have a lot in common, including a suburban childhood, and a love of Prince and hockey. But despite my admiration for his films, I was disappointed in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, as it felt like I'd already been down that path before. Smith said it was made for the hardcore fans, but it didn't really do anything for me.
But with his Jay and Silent Bob films behind him (until production on Clerks 2 starts up in 2005), Smith returned to his Chasing Amy playground to take another crack at personal filmmaking, creating a movie inspired by his experiences as a father. Of course, he didn't leave cinematic New Jersey, but this movie is easily the most removed from his trademark works as anything he's done, and not just because the Dynamic Duo are absent. Teaming up with old pal Ben Affleck, Smith tells the story of a man who thinks he's lost it all, but has actually found something important. It must have been a definite challenge for Smith to create, as it's not the kind of movie many Smith fans would likely enjoy. But man does not live on Snootchie Boochies alone, and Smith wisely has realized this.
It's hard to talk about Jersey Girl without mentioning Gigli because of the presence of the artists formerly known as "Bennifer." Yes, Jennifer Lopez is in this movie (barely) and yes, she is romantically attached to Affleck, but that's where the Gigli connection ends. Theater-goers, lead by the pre-release articles linking the two films, didn't feel the same though, staying away from Jersey Girl, despite it being the most accessible of his films. If there is a Kevin Smith film that the entire family can sit down and enjoy, it's Jersey Girl.
The movie starts in the '90s, and Ollie Trinke (Affleck) is a successful music PR man in New York City. He's also successful with the ladies, bagging Gertrude (Lopez), a top book editor. They have a great New York City/Nora Ephron relationship and soon they have a kid coming. But tragedy strikes Ollie's perfect world, and he's stuck in a situation he's completely not ready for, raising a little girl on his own. Despite taking advantage of his father, Bart (George Carlin), it becomes too much for him to handle, and his world crumbles a bit more. Ollie's forced to return to New Jersey to live with his dad Bart and work a blue-collar job to support his daughter.
There's a good amount of set-up in this movie, as Ollie's life has to be built up and knocked down in order to give his relationship with his daughter Gertie (Raquel Castro) emotional weight. But once the titular Jersey girl is old enough to charm the audience, the story gets moving in earnest. Castro has a preternatural ability to act, and her resemblance to Lopez is dead-on, making her the perfect pick for a part that had to be cute, but not saccharine sweet. We also meet the adorable and blunt video store clerk, Maya (Liv Tyler), who helps Ollie emerge from his lost years. Like Chasing Amy, this is a small story, and essentially these are all the characters Smith needs to tell his tale.
Also like Chasing Amy, there's just as many opportunities for tears as laughs, as Gertie grows up before Ollie's eyes and his desire for what he once had, conflicts with his current life. Though it's a classic, and somewhat overused movie plot, Smith makes it work by couching it in a real setting populated by real people who speak as such. There is one moment that is so honest and raw that it caught me totally by surprise and actually shocked me. I'm hesitant to tell when exactly it happens, because I would be robbing the uninitiated of the moment. But safe to say, I doubt it was easy to shoot. In one line, the plot is summed up succinctly and savagely. It's heart breaking, and way too powerful an emotion for most actors to pull off. Luckily for this film, Affleck is not just any actor when working in New Jersey. In my view, he is never better than when working with Smith, who seems to have an instinctual feel for Affleck's voice, like he's an expert puppeteer pulling his star's strings just the right way. The rest of the cast, especially Carlin in a dramatic turn, deliver solid performances, but the movie rides on Affleck's performance, and he nails it.
Jersey Girl is easily Smith's most mainstream movie, not just in terms of the writing, but also the top-notch cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond (Real Genius, The Deer Hunter) and music by James Venable ("The Powerpuff Girls," "Samurai Jack"). New Jersey's never looked this good before and the finished package has more polish than the rest of Smith's entire oeuvre. That's fitting for what is his most polished work as a creative force. Though he's certain to return to the scatological, this movie, following Chasing Amy, is the next step in the maturation of a Jersey Boy.
On the commentaries, Kevin Smith says a longer cut of Jersey Girl is on the way, but he recently wrote on his website that he hasn't heard anything about it. So purchase or wait at your own discretion. Until then, this stuffed standard edition will have to do. A one-disc wonder, Jersey Girl comes in widescreen, with English and French 5.1 soundtracks. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish. As far as menus go, the first one is animated, but the rest are static, and all of them are widescreen. There are several special features, which are explored in "The Extras."
Watching the opening of this movie and knowing it's a Kevin Smith film is a bit off-putting, as it's more beautiful than anything he's done before. The DVD transfer is clean, capturing shadows and blacks solidly, which is important, because there's plenty of night and interior scenes. There is some grain and occasional softness, possibly due to the low encoding rate, which runs an average of 5Mbps. The four audio tracks may be to blame for the video economy. The audio is presented in 5.1, though it's hardly a work-out for the surround sound, with the dialogue mostly centered, with music and ambient sounds filling the fringes. It does its job well.
As with most every ViewAskew DVD, except for the disappointing Dogma barebones release, this disc has plenty of bonus features, and as usual, the commentary tracks are the centerpiece of the pack. There are two tracks, and in a true rarity, they are adult commentary tracks for family movies. First up, though recorded second, we get Smith and Affleck in a very relaxed conversation that strays from screen-specific to cover more general topics, especially film critics. Sometimes, a commentary for a movie that didn't soar in theaters will attempt to ignore that fact. Smith's self-deprecating attitude won't allow that, and he and Affleck take on the movie's financial shortcomings head on. I'm tempted to say this is the first time a Smith commentary track is funnier than the film itself (mainly because it's not a flat-out comedy.)
The second track has Smith with his usual on-screen partner, Jason "Jay" Mewes and his producing partner, Scott Mosier. This track is more technical than the Smith/Affleck chat, with Mewes filling in for the fans, asking relatively insightful questions to spur the commentary. This track focuses more on the making of the movie and the use of focus groups, and includes discussion of Mewes' drug problem, which affected the casting of this movie. Like the Affleck chat, when you get these three together, the laugh factor kicks in immediately, but since Smith and Mosier are the heads of state, they know the most about what went on, and the stories are very informative.
There are several interviews on this disc, including one extensive full-screen featurette of Smith and Affleck talking about their working relationship. Standing in a recording studio, they talk about their shared history, which is punctuated by clips from their work. Essentially, this is an extension of their shared commentary, presenting the guys on-screen in their ultra-relaxed style. There are also several text interviews with the stars and crew of the film, done for one of Smith's many websites. These are informative and entertaining, but could have been better designed for reading on-screen. The thin letters and small font make for a hard read.
An odd inclusion, but appreciated nonetheless, are Smith's "Roadside Attraction" segments from "The Tonight Show." There are five in all, including a visit to the set of Jersey Girl, each in full-screen with stereo sound. For anyone who hasn't seen these segments, Smith goes around the country checking out lesser-known tourist traps. The comedy is very "middle America," but Smith sells it.
As with every DVD, there's plenty of promo stuff, and this disc is no exception. An EPK behind-the-scenes package from Miramax Television has some interesting interviews, but it's really meant to sell the movie. There are also six trailers, but for some unknown reason, none for Jersey Girl. I will never understand why some DVD producers leave such low-cost, yet desired material.
The Bottom Line
Despite being a standard release, the disc is loaded, and the two commentary tracks are almost as entertaining as the movie itself. That's quite a success, as Kevin Smith tried something different with Jersey Girl, and despite the luke-warm response it received in theaters thanks to the curse of Gigli, the movie is a step forward for the mercurial writer/director. His biggest sin in making this movie was being Kevin Smith. So as he stretches his wings, this DVD could represent the beginning of a new era for New Jersey's native son, one in which he moves away from his cult beginnings and embraces new possibilities. Like Ollie in the movie, Smith's fans can be proud. Our boy is growing up before our eyes.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.