Livin’ on a prayer
What’s happened to Kevin Smith? In movies like Clerks and Dogma, he earned a reputation for edgy grunge and cheerful irreverence, but with his new movie, Jersey Girl, he goes all soft and sentimental, as if he’s suddenly started channeling Chris Columbus. And not the lighthearted Columbus of Adventures in Babysitting or Home Alone, but the Columbus of the disgusting, fraudulent Stepmom. At least the news isn’t all bad. Despite the plentiful phoniness in his story, Smith is too honest to give the falsehoods his full attention. And at least he has Liv Tyler and George Carlin.
The story opens in 1994, when Ollie Trinke (Ben Affleck), a New York showbiz publicist, meets and falls in love with Gertrude (Jennifer Lopez, in a good-sport supporting role). In quick succession, Ollie takes Gertrude home to New Jersey to meet his father, Bart (Carlin). Then, Ollie and Gertrude get married, Gertrude gets pregnant, and the workaholic Ollie starts missing their Lamaze classes.
When Gertrude dies in childbirth, Ollie is left with nothing but his baby daughter and his raging grief. He and baby Gertie move in with Grandpa Bart, who winds up doing all the parenting as Ollie buries himself in his work; he’s still a workaholic, but now he’s vicious and unpleasant, to boot. He soon sees his folly and devotes himself to his daughter, even taking a blue-collar job to stay in Jersey. Then, when Gertie is 7 (and played by Raquel Castro), he meets Maya (Tyler), a video-store clerk, and a tentative romance takes root.
In interviews, Smith has said that marriage and parenthood mellowed him to the point where he could undertake a movie like Jersey Girl, and the film is dedicated to his own father, who died last year. There’s a sincerity in the movie that makes this easy to believe and that makes us want to take it at face value.
But undermining the sincerity is the fact that Smith can never break free of the clichés. There’s the crib-side scene where a tearful Ollie analyzes his own grief to his infant daughter (“You’re all I’ve got now”). The recycled scene from Kramer vs. Kramer: “I hate you!” “I hate you back!” Then later: “I’m sorry, Daddy. I didn’t mean it.” “I’m sorry too, baby.” There’s the daddy-at-the-crossroads scene, where he has to decide whether to go for that big job interview or attend his daughter’s school play. And, of course, there’s the moment of epiphany when a stranger (actually a cameo by a big star playing himself) helps our hero understand what he really wants out of life.
All these scenes come almost at random. Does the crib-side scene come before or after Ollie blows his career at a Hard Rock Cafe publicity event? I don’t remember, and it doesn’t matter, because neither one leads to or arises from the other. They’re just laugh-getters or button-pushers.
Smith doesn’t bother with internal logic. Would an elementary school really stage a talent show, complete with sets and costumes, and never notice that nearly every parent-and-child team is doing the very same song? Would any normal 7-year-old girl ever pull off a song from Sweeney Todd? Would a father who caught his daughter “playing doctor” with the neighbor kid sit them down and calmly ask the 7-year-old boy his intentions? The tepid laughs these moments get hardly justify the contrivance.
Affleck does his usual sturdy, unobjectionable work, while little Castro, cute as she is, shows an unsettling ardor in preening for the camera. However, Jersey Girl does have two reasons to see it, and their names are Liv Tyler and George Carlin. Tyler is especially good. After the regal solemnity of her fairy princess in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, she plunges into a human character with vivacious relish (and shows an unsuspected, albeit modest, talent for song and dance).
And comedian Carlin, in the first real acting of his career, grounds the whole film in the kind of reality that used to be Smith’s trademark. If Smith’s father is even a little bit like the warmly crotchety character Carlin plays here, it’s no wonder Smith dedicated a movie to him.