After a decade making movies, Kevin Smith has finally made one that doesn’t look like garbage. This time around, it simply is garbage.
Smith’s fanboys are probably reaching for the launch button on their nuclear e-mails right about now, but it needed to be said. Ever since his 1994 debut, Clerks, Smith has built an audience with his snarky, pop-culture-reference-dropping writing and a penchant for the outrageous—Chasing Amy’s relationship twists, Mallrats’ “stink-palm,” Dogma’s sacri-larious “Buddy Christ.” It mattered little to that audience, apparently, that Smith didn’t seem to have a clue what to do with a camera besides sit it in one place and take ugly pictures of characters gabbing. He was a writer with delusions of being a director.
But one thing he never was, was boring. So it’s almost tragic that with Jersey Girl, Kevin Smith grows up as a film director just in time to completely abandon everything that made his writing interesting.
You may already have heard of Jersey Girl as that other, post-Gigli Ben-and-J.Lo movie, but if there’s a reason to avoid the film, that ain’t it. Ben Affleck does star here as Ollie Trinke, a hotshot young New York publicist; Jennifer Lopez does appear as his beloved wife Gertrude. But Gertrude makes a quick exit when she dies during childbirth, leaving the shellshocked Ollie a single dad with no clue and—after impulsively trashing a client in public—no career.
Seven years later, Ollie is living in New Jersey with his father (George Carlin) and young Gertie (Raquel Castro), working as a civil servant but keen to jump-start his life. Will he find love with a sweet video-store clerk (Liv Tyler)? Will he put his career ahead of his family? Will it all turn into the kind of trite tripe that the guys in Clerks would have mocked mercilessly?
I won’t spoil the pleasure of discovery, except to ask whether Smith has surrendered his idiosyncratic voice. Jersey Girl oozes mawkishness and lazy predictability even Smith’s biggest detractors wouldn’t have expected from him. When a very-pregnant Gertrude asks rhetorically of labor, “How hard can it be?,” Smith cuts immediately to her screaming in the delivery room. He falls back on dirty diaper gags that were ancient back in the day of Steve Guttenberg and Tom Selleck. Ollie’s heartfelt speech to the infant Gertie involves so many cutaways to the gurgling, cooing child that you suspect a Gerber commercial is about to break out. Once every half-hour or so, a tart line of dialogue erupts to balance the saccharine sweetness. There’s no distinctive stamp, just the numbing pace and content of glossy Hollywood hackwork.
Fittingly, this is Smith’s first movie actually to look like it could be glossy Hollywood hackwork. Veteran cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) bathes everything in a romantic glow, and Smith seems to gain a sense of confidence from working with him. His camera actually moves here, and his editing rhythms feel more like he’s trying to make a movie instead of drop one-liners on us. Unfortunately, his idea of subtle filmmaking still involves music cues like “Landslide” (when Ollie is having a moment of sad introspection) and “Let My Love Open the Door” (when Smith wants to show Gertie’s love opening the door). Baby steps, I suppose.
Smith also remains unflinchingly loyal to his friends, which is admirable in a human being but not necessarily in an artist. Ben Affleck probably did his best work in Smith’s Chasing Amy, but he’s still a lightweight actor who flails at serious drama. And George Carlin may be one of the best stand-up comedy minds ever, but any of 75 different actors would have done more with the cranky dad role. Thank heaven for Liv Tyler, who at least brings a buoyant energy to her part—and for a few well-placed cameos by performers with more comic presence than the rest of Smith’s cast combined.
What’s left, then, is a film that fails not because it’s emotional, but because it resorts to bad cinema’s approximations of emotion. In a misguided attempt to “grow” as an artist, Smith simply shuts down the parts of his brain that made him distinctive in the first place so he could make something respectable, but utterly tedious. It’s not funny, it’s not sweet. It’s not even Kevin Smith—a little for the better, but mostly for the worse.
JERSEY GIRL, *.5, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Raquel Castro, Rated PG-13