JERSEY GIRL (2004)
Starring Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Raquel Castro, George Carlin, Jennifer Lopez, Jason Biggs, Stephen Root, Mike Starr, Jennifer Schwalbach, S. Epatha Merkerson, Jada Copeland Goodman, Robert McKay, Ernie O’Donnell, Cymande Lewis, Jason Lee, Matt Damon and Will Smith.
Screenplay by Kevin Smith.
Directed by Kevin Smith.
Distributed by Miramax Pictures. 102 minutes. Rated PG-13.
No. It is just not possible. This cannot be a Kevin Smith movie. His name may be on the poster. He may be doing interviews about the film. But it all must be some huge misunderstanding. Or maybe an elaborate offbeat joke on us all.
After all, Kevin Smith may be many things, but one thing he has never been is sappy. He has never relied on cute kids or tragic deaths to make his points and move his plots. He’s never made his audiences sit through a kid’s talent show. And he has certainly never staged it like a full-blown Broadway musical. He’s never had a precocious seven-year-old girl scolding her father like he was the kid.
As Randal, the video store manager in Smith’s classic debut film Clerks would have put it, “This movie is breeder junk that tries to make viewers feel better about the bad choices they have made.” Little things like facts and reality have nothing to do with this storyline. It is just a sentimental love song to parenthood. Look, I’m glad Smith is a parent. I’m glad he loves his wife and child. It is certainly his right to make a movie that is not at all cynical or jaded. (Well, okay, it is cynical and jaded in some ways, but only about the New York entertainment industry.)
I just wish he didn’t replace his normal edginess with such a bunch of stale clichés.
The film starts in the mid-90s. Ben Affleck plays Ollie Trinké, a fast-track music publicist who handles superstars like Madonna. (I won’t tell Madonna’s real-life PR woman Liz Rosenberg if you don’t…) He meets and falls in love with a book editor named Gertrude (Jennifer Lopez.) They get married, but she dies from an aneurysm during childbirth. Ollie is distraught, but he moves back home with his father, a charmingly dour street-sweeper and self-proclaimed alcoholic played by George Carlin. Ollie throws himself into his work to forget his wife, leaving the baby girl to his father to take care of.
A month later, Ollie still hasn’t taken responsibility for his daughter. Finally, his father refuses to take sole accountability for the girl anymore. Of course, he picked the day when Ollie has a huge press conference at New York’s Hard Rock Café for a not-quite-super-famous-yet Will Smith. Smith is late, the baby needs a diaper, Affleck gets powder all over his sharp power suit and the press starts acting like a Mongolian horde. (Really, does Kevin Smith think people really believe that press conferences are anything like this?) So, Ollie snaps, calling the Fresh Prince a has-been rapper and stupid sitcom star. Ollie is immediately blacklisted.
Seven years later, Ollie has become a super-dad. He works at the streets department (I couldn’t quite figure out if he drives a street-sweeper or is in maintenance; both positions seem to be suggested at different parts of the story) with his father and dad’s drinking buddies. He lives with his father in Jersey too. His idea of a big night on the town is to rent videos with his daughter (Raquel Castro). He may be poor (though he still drives a late model BMW in one pivotal scene) but he is happy. He has downsized his life and he likes it that way.
Over the years, Ollie has remained faithful to his late wife’s memory. He hasn’t dated, but he has become something of a regular in the local video store’s adult room. One day when renting a skin flick together with his daughter’s kiddie movie, Maya, the adorable girl behind the counter (Liv Tyler) starts questioning him on his porn viewing habits. Turns out that she is a grad student who is writing a thesis on family men who rent pornography. (What grad school is she going to?) She thinks Ollie is cute and it’s sweet how well he gets along with his daughter, so she invites him to lunch to “interview” him. When she finds out he hasn’t had sex since his wife died, she pulls him out of the diner to go back to his place for a fling.
Liv Tyler is adorable and likable in the role, so I hate to have to point out what a nothing part Smith has written for her. Maya just is too unrealistic for words. I have worked in video stores in my troubled past, and believe me, tiny strip mall video stores in Jersey don’t get girls as cute as Liv Tyler who are willing to give the guys who rent out porn “a mercy jump.” Maya only exists to be cute, raise Ollie from his rut and make him (and by extension his family) fall for her.
Ollie starts to remember all those feelings and tries to get back his life in New York. His daughter… who is cute and does look like Lopez, but who is given way too many precocious things to say and do… doesn’t want to move. So, Ollie must decide between the opportunity to interview for a job that will finally get him back into the publicity game or to go perform with his daughter in her third-grade talent competition. When did parents start taking part in grade school talent shows, anyway? Why for that matter, do all the other kids go up on an empty stage with one or both parents and then Gertie goes up with her entire extended family, including her dad’s girlfriend and her Grandpa’s drinking buddies and a set that looks like it was put together for an Andrew Lloyd Webber production? Why, with hundreds of years of theatrical musicals to choose from, would little Gertie pick a tune from Sweeney Todd, complete with throat-slitting? Why do all the other families sing “Memory” from Cats, which is just one of the several jokes at that show’s expense. I didn’t like the play much either, but it’s been off of Broadway for three years now, give it a rest.
In the meantime, Ollie has gone to the job interview, and who does he run into in the waiting room but (irony of ironies) Will Smith, who does not know how much trouble he caused Ollie all those years ago. As superstars always do when they are in a waiting room (oh, yeah, that’s right, superstars would never be in a waiting room!) Will starts a “candid” conversation with this stranger sitting next to him, about the music business, his penis size and fatherhood. It was nice of Will to do the cameo as a favor, but the scene is so forced that it is impossible to buy. Because Will Smith loves his kids too, Ollie leaves the interview and speeds over to Jersey to get to the pageant in time. He gets stuck in his hometown when he hits a street repair roadblock. (One that he was responsible for earlier in the film, so he should have known to avoid it.) So then, instead of driving a couple of blocks around it, he has to run to the school so that he can arrive all winded just as Gertie is going on.
Personally, I think that the blue-collar values the film champions are sometimes a bit naïve. In the film’s viewpoint, it is better a street-sweeper and a good dad than to be a workaholic New York entertainment publicist. Better in a small house in central Jersey than a luxury apartment in Manhattan. Better hanging out with good working-class people than stars and reporters. What are they saying, you can’t be a single parent and a professional at the same time? What the film refuses to acknowledge is that it does not have to be an either/or situation. People can be happy and good parents and still have good, glamorous jobs in the big city. Being poor does not necessarily make you a better human being. Journalists at puff piece press conferences do not tend to act like an unruly mob. And, frankly, no publicist would ever get fired for blowing up on a press photo op because he was taking care of his infant daughter less than a month after his wife died.
Also, to be perfectly honest, over a decade into his career, Kevin Smith has still not quite learned the craft of being a director. He is still a hell of a screenwriter, (even in a lesser work like this one) but his visual eye and sense of pacing still hasn’t caught on. Little mistakes like actors stumbling over their lines (which happens here a few times, including the pivotal moment Tyler tells Affleck her name) may have been okay in Clerks, but now Smith has enough of a budget that he can actually do another take on those flubbed scenes.
This movie has been held back for several months, mostly because Affleck’s ex, Jennifer Lopez, agreed to do a 15-minute cameo as Ollie’s doomed wife. Lopez is just fine in her early scenes. Mostly, she is just required to be an angelic dream girl. There is one strange scene where she is made to look vain and petulant, though, when she picks a fight with Affleck because she is afraid that she will look fat at the MTV Video Music Awards because she’s eight months pregnant. Honey, you’re a publicist’s wife, no one is even going to know you’re there. Smith and Miramax pushed back the release of the movie since last year because they didn’t want this film to be enveloped in the stench of Ben and Jen’s historically bad last collaboration, Gigli. However, they had nothing to worry about. The Ben and J. Lo. section was way too brief to kill this movie. The weak story did that all on its own. (3/04)
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2004 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 17, 2004.