In one of Kevin Smith’s deliriously subversive Jay and Silent Bob movies, Jay (Jason Mewes) complains that he can’t watch Pretty in Pink with Silent Bob (Smith), because “this tubby bitch cries like a little girl.” Who would have guessed that this was probably not a joke after all, but a very real assessment of Smith?
That’s certainly the conclusion I had drawn by the halfway point in Smith’s tiresome and treacly Jersey Girl — a film that is not, in fact, ruined by the combined presence of Ben Affleck and J-Lo, but by the sheer deluge of high-grade goo that Smith has mistaken for maturity. Indeed, Affleck does the best that he can in coping with the strained seriousness he’s handed, while the few scenes with J-Lo at the beginning are actually the best in the movie.
For that matter, there’s nothing all that wrong with the performances in general. The problem lies with the film itself: Smith has concocted a painfully predictable soap opera that would fit in very nicely on the Lifetime Network.
In all fairness, Jersey Girl isn’t as high on the “Bennifer”-o-meter as was Gigli, and it’s unlikely to end up on too many Ten Worst lists — since it’s also not likely that anyone will remember its existence by the end of the year. The film is particularly disappointing coming from this director, and more painful still because just enough glimmerings of vintage Smith pop up — the acerbic Catholic-school teacher at the beginning (“Nice droning”), the insane (but not quite insane enough) staging of a song from Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd for an elementary-school program — to remind you that you’re in the presence of a unique voice.
Such pleasant quirks not only remind you of the movie you might have been watching, but they feel grafted onto the rest of the film’s bland dramatics. And there’s no excuse for that, since Smith demonstrated his ability to be quirky and serious quite nicely with Chasing Amy — a frequently brilliant, heavily layered work with a subtext you could chew on for days. Jersey Girl, however, is pure pap.
For those who care, the story centers on workaholic, PR spin-doctor Ollie Trinke (Affleck), whose wife (J-Lo) dies in childbirth, saddling him with a baby. The child’s presence causes him to denounce the gossip press and say some indelicate things about Will Smith, destroying Ollie’s career. As a result, he ends up living in New Jersey with his crusty father (George Carlin), working as a street sweeper, indulging in a tepid romance with video-store owner Maya (Liv Tyler) and coming to terms with being a father to terminally precocious Gertie (Raquel Castro).
The Big Drama centers around whether Ollie will return to his old life when the chance presents itself, or instead will find True Happiness with the Simple Life in Jersey. If you don’t know what’s going to happen here, chances are you haven’t been to the movies since Coolidge was in office. Equally depressing is the fact that Smith seems to think that replacing Jay and Silent Bob with Will Smith as a deus ex machina device (see Chasing Amy) is a sign of growth. In reality, it’s only a toothless variation on an established approach.
I’ve applauded the genuine growth of filmmakers like the brothers Farrelly and Weitz as they moved from There’s Something About Mary to Shallow Hal and from American Pie to About a Boy respectively. But in both cases, the directors grew without turning into a huge tub of mush — a feat that evades Smith here.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke