A film review by Craig J. Koban

JERSEY GIRL jjjj

2004, PG-13, 102 mins.

Ollie Trinke: Ben Affleck / Maya: Liv Tyler / Gertie Trinke: Raquel Castro / Bart Trinke: George Carlin / Arthur Brickman: Jason Biggs / Gertrude: Jennifer Lopez

Written and directed by Kevin Smith

JERSEY GIRL is the sixth film by New Jersey writer/director Kevin Smith and it also represents his finest two hours.  What may surprise you with this small little gem of a romantic comedy is not so much how great it is, but moreover what a refreshing and wonderful change of pace this is for Smith.  Genre fans of his work may be apprehensive about this film and, quite frankly, it could turn many of them off.   

Truth be told, there is no Jay and Silent Bob in this, no jokes or humor at the expense of bodily functions, and… hell…not even one “snootchie-bootchie.”  Sure, the film is still fairly vulgar (there are many expletives, but no where near the number of 4 or 12 letter variations of that all-too-famous “f” word Smith uses with wit and scatological charm in his earlier work).  Sure, there is still some pop culture commentary and references, although not nearly as many.  Sure, some of his regulars appear briefly in cameos (especially two very famous Smith thespians, in a very funny scene).  And yes, Smith purists out there, he even manages one small and subtle STAR WARS reference that was also laced into his previous work. 

If JERSEY GIRL represents anything, it shows a genuinely maturing filmmaker who is reaching the top of his game by also demonstrating his broad range and wholesome, honest, and sensitive dedication to his characters and story. 

Jersey Girl tells the story of a cocky and selfish Manhattan music publicist named Ollie Trinke (played by the “always reliable in Smith Films” Ben Affleck) and his wife Gertrude (played by, yes…the second half of the entity know as Bennifer…Jennifer Lopez).  They have a relationship that eventually leads to Lopez being with child.  Unlike GIGLI, Affleck and Lopez have some wonderful chemistry here and the few good scenes they do have are ripe with the terrifically inventive dialogue that makes all Smith films stand out.  I especially liked Affleck trying to make Lopez feel better when she is feeling ugly while pregnant (“You don’t want to look like the models at the party, honey, they are Coked-up whores,” Affleck deadpans). 

Now, I said “few” scenes because (S-P-O-I-L-E-R   W-A-R-N-I-N-G) J-Lo dies while giving birth to their newborn daughter.  This scene would have been so much more powerful if the media had not spoiled the plot point several months back, in some sort of effort to cry out and say, “Don’t worry, not another GIGLI on our hands…she dies in the first 15 minutes!”  Yet, she is so winning and likable in her few scenes with Affleck, I nevertheless had a strong emotional reaction to her death, and it provides the plot with a chance to take a strong and sharp turn. 

Affleck’s life goes to pieces, he eventually loses his job, and is forced to take his newborn baby and live with his alcoholic, yet very loving father played very, very effectively by comedian George Carlin.  This is where the film really starts to take off, as the completely hopeless and useless Affleck tries very unsuccessfully to nurse his baby, often with the invaluable help of Carlin. 

The film flash-forwards seven years and we see the baby grow up.  She is played as a child by a wonderful new find named Rachel Castro, who has so much life, so much energy, and so much charm and charisma that she completely holds her own to the other cast.  She is not just another cute kid in a film that makes all of the semi-obligatory punchlines to other character’s jokes.  She is a fully realized character whom is allowed to think, speak freely and be a completely three-dimensional character.  Her scenes with Affleck are the emotional cornerstones of the film, and their natural chemistry is handled well. 

Affleck eventually meets a grad student who moonlights as a video store clerk, who is played very humorously by Liv Tyler.  As with his 1997 film CHASING AMY, Smith demonstrates again here how he does not allow himself to be a slave towards romantic comedy clichés.  He breaks free of these restraints and allows the relationship between Affleck and Tyler to develop naturally.  It’s not an instant “meet-cute”, and it is actually Tyler who plays the romantic aggressor at first.  They realize that they are meant to be friends first and, well, maybe lovers in the future.  They like each other, but Smith respects the characters and the dialogue between the two and he shows what a master he is at colloquial, yet colorful conversations.  They don’t have useless exchanges that only serve the function of advancing the plot from point A to B.  They talk about things and about things candidly.  The sexual frankness of the exchanges that made CHASING AMY so refreshing is also here as well. 

The one thing that was a real delight was the uniformly good performances by the entire cast.  Mention has already been made about the unrelenting cuteness and charm of Castro, but for me the real standout was Affleck.  Affleck plays vulnerable men better that anyone.  One critic slammed the film because Affleck “cries” too much in it and has too many tender scenes.  Excuse me?  Since when is it a norm or a standard for Affleck (or any male actor) to play tough and rugged all the time?  Affleck is a completely realized person here, and Smith knows just how to handle him.   Ollie is smarmy, insensitive, lethargic, and emotionally distant at times and seems only to care about his career.  Yet, he is also capable of being loving, caring, frank, and charming.  Affleck has rarely been better than here, especially in one emotionally charged scene where he hastily screams to his daughter that her birth wrecked his life (I felt a tingle down my skin and a lump in my throat during that exchange).   

The most surprisingly effective performance was by good old’ George Carlin.  He really stretches his acting chops as well.  I love how Smith plays an even hand to all of the characters.  Sure, Carlin is there for some extra comic relief, but he too is a developed character who despite his alcoholism, is a wonderful family man who always steps in to father both his son and grandchild.  There is one incredibly tender and touching moment at the end of the film where Carlin is faced with the prospect of Affleck and his child leaving him.  The scene is so wonderfully underplayed by Carlin with just a few sparse words and his eyes that it screamed out, heaven help me, Oscar. 

JERSEY GIRL was just a pure delight. It was funny in all the right places and as emotional as any film I have seen this year.  It’s a film that has a wonderful balancing act between comedy and drama.  The writing was top-notch and all of the performances were of the perfect pitch.  I still find it amazing that the man behind the indie-sensation CLERKS, the religiously ambivalent, yet spiritually faithful and insightful DOGMA, the sexually frank yet tender and sensitive CHASING AMY, and the self-satire/parody JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK crafted such a terrific mainstream entertainment in JERSEY GIRL.  Kevin Smith is not going “soft” with this romantic comedy, nor is he “selling out” to big budget, Hollywood conventions.  Rather, he’s doing what all great filmmakers do:  They expand their horizons, go to areas they have not occupied, and succeed by broadening their artistic range.  Jersey Girl represents the best film of Smith’s career and highlights him as a unique voice that is only getting better. 

Snootch to the nootch.

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