By Les Winan
March 22, 2004
Take that ride, across the river to the Jersey side...
Jersey Girl is not Gigli. Jersey Girl is not a movie about Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez. It’s not a movie about their real-life relationship. In fact, it’s barely a movie about their on-screen relationship. Jersey Girl is, however, a love story. It’s about the love of a father for his daughter, and her love for him. Jersey Girl is, above all, a movie about growing up.
Director Kevin Smith has kicked off the second chapter of his career with his sixth film, Jersey Girl. Well-known (and beloved) for his five-film Jersey Trilogy (Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back), Smith has steadily progressed as a filmmaker during that time. Smith’s recurring characters from those movies have been retired, with an eye toward making new (if not always different) movies with new characters and none of the constraints that came with working in a very specific universe of his own creation.
Among his most avid fans (including, it must be noted, Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein), he is known as a filmmaker with a talent for cursing, sexual references, drug references, geek culture homage, and cursing. A self-proclaimed purveyor of “dick and fart” jokes, Smith’s work has regularly had a less-recognized beating heart. With Jersey Girl, he has intentionally, and successfully, sublimated his tendency to go for the cheap joke most of the time by creating a film around that beating heart.
Ben Affleck stars as Oliver Trinke, a successful publicist in New York City, who, in the process of promoting his stable of musical talent, meets (ironically) Jennifer Lopez, playing Gertrude Steiney, with whom he falls in love and marries. Pregnant with their first child (mild, but well-known spoiler ahead), she dies in childbirth, leaving Ollie alone with an infant daughter, a successful and time-consuming career, and no clue what to do. After a very funny, very believable scene involving dirty diapers, a crowd of journalists and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Trinke moves home to Highlands, New Jersey, to live with his father, Bart (George Carlin). Seven years pass and we rejoin the Trinke family as Ollie picks up seven-year-old Gertie from school.
Over the next two hours, we watch as Ollie and Gertie struggle with Ollie’s dreams of moving back to New York City; regaining his career; dealing with feelings of self-worth; learning on-the-fly how to be a parent; and finding a new potential love. It’s not a real complicated formula, but Smith’s direction keeps the film honest enough to make it work well.
A top-notch, well-cast group of supporting actors plays crucial roles in the success of Jersey Girl. Aside from Carlin (now a Smith regular) and Raquel Castro as Gertie Trinke, Liv Tyler plays a potential love interest for Ollie; Jason Biggs, Mike Starr, Stephen Root, Matt Damon, Jason Lee and The Fresh Prince all play crucial parts of the story. All are terrific in their roles, but none more than Carlin, Castro and Tyler. Carlin, in what could have been a one-note, throwaway role, makes the most of his time on screen, providing perhaps the best dramatic moment with one simple line late in the film. When Carlin, whose recent films have included him preparing to fellate a trucker, can get an audience choked up, you know the film is hitting all the right marks.
Castro, impressively, is perfectly cast, looking just enough like Lopez to remind us of her character’s death throughout the film. Looks aside, Castro is terrific young actor, with exactly the right verbal skills to spar with Affleck, Carlin and Tyler, while being aware enough to pull off the best of her lines believably. Frequently, child actors can sink even the best film, whether through Smith’s direction of her or her own ability, Castro is nothing but an asset. Tyler, always beautiful, is charming and interesting in another role that could have been shoved to the background of the father-daughter story.
The most impressive performance is Affleck. In a role that is not showy (there’s no blowing up of asteroids, Japanese World War II-era Zeroes, retarded kid or bad accent for him to hide behind), Affleck is the rock the movie is built on. Dealing with a pretty involved character arc, Affleck’s work in Jersey Girl is that of an actor, not a movie star. Summoning believable tears, rage, frustration and clear feelings of love, longing and doing it all within a realistic relationship with the young girl playing his daughter, Affleck never lets Castro overshadow him, nor does he pull her along with him. The character’s maturation is interesting to watch, particularly with an actor like Affleck, so convincing at being self-involved and mean in previous movies.
Always at his best working with an actor who challenges him and makes him react (Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, Gwyneth Paltrow in Bounce, Joey Lauren Adams in Chasing Amy), Affleck is lucky to have Castro, Carlin and Tyler, who are all capable of that. Much of the credit for the performance must also lie with Smith, who certainly wrote the character with his own voice, but wrote with the actor in mind. This is Affleck’s fifth movie with Kevin Smith, and it’s clear that Smith knows how to direct his muse.
Ultimately, this is Kevin Smith’s movie. Working with an Academy Award-winning cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), lends Jersey Girl a look never before seen in Smith’s work: classy. That’s not a knock on Smith so much as it’s a compliment to Zsigmond. But it’s Smith’s script and direction that make the movie work. There are clear moments of corniness that show Smith’s relative unfamiliarity with material like this, but for the most part his willingness to focus on the task at hand makes the film more cohesive than the majority of his previous efforts. Even the music used throughout the film works extremely well. This is not to say that much of Smith’s trademark humor and edge aren’t present; they certainly are, but he’s found a worthwhile balance. It’s as though Smith has gone through a very public film school over the past ten years, and if Jersey Girl is the first film out of the gate, post-graduation, we have a great deal to look forward to.
So far, there’s been a seemingly successful attempt to separate the Bennifer story from the release of this movie. If that’s the case and the public leaves the publicity surrounding their relationship and the Gigli release behind them, they’ll find that Jersey Girl is an outstanding film. Certainly, we can all hope that Kevin Smith never completely grows up, but if his maturation as a filmmaker includes more movies like Jersey Girl, I can deal with it.