USA, 2004. Rated PG-13. 103 minutes.
Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Jennifer Lopez, George Carlin, Raquel Castro, Jason Biggs, Stephen Root, Mike Star, Will Smith
|Grade: D||Review by Warren Curry|
evin Smith's new film, the Ben Affleck vehicle Jersey Girl , has a few things going for it—it's shot in focus, the picture and soundtrack are in perfect sync, and it means well. But that's where the compliments end. Describing this film as a disaster somehow sounds too diplomatic. Jersey Girl proves, even with six features now under his belt, just how amateurish a filmmaker Kevin Smith still is and continues Ben Affleck's rapid descent from movie stardom. Any career that can survive the catastrophic trifecta that is Gigli, Paycheck, and Jersey Girl should be investigated for possible extraterrestrial involvement.
I didn't walk into this film a Kevin Smith fan, but I'll give his body of work a modicum of credit. As a writer, Smith is a smarter version of the troublemaking slacker who seemed to find his way into at least one of your classes every year in high school. His dialogue, while generally completely overwritten, has been, at the very least, distinct. Whether good or bad, Smith imprinted his voice clearly onto all of his movies and appeared to be connecting with a certain target audience. Jersey Girl is Smith's blatantly obvious attempt to slide into mainstream territory, completely devoid of his—or any—personality. With his trademark foul-mouthed dialogue stifled, Smith's lack of directorial skill is painfully exposed.
The story begins in New York City circa 1994, as Ollie Trinkie (Affleck), a hotshot music publicist who works for one of the top firms in the city, appears to hold the world firmly in the palm of his hand. He marries his book editor girlfriend, Gertrude (Jennifer Lopez), who soon becomes pregnant with the young couple's daughter. But during birth, Gertrude has an aneurysm. While the child is born healthy, the mother is lost.
Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler in Jersey Girl.
So begins life as a single parent for the grieving Ollie. He takes his infant daughter, named Gertie (Raquel Castro), after her mother, to the suburban New Jersey home of his alcoholic, blue-collar father, Bart (George Carlin), so she can be looked after while he puts in long hours at the office. Ollie's constantly on-the-go lifestyle severely clashes with the responsibilities of a single parent, leading to a tumultuous incident at a press conference that costs Ollie his job and dogs him for many years to follow.
We cut to seven years later; Ollie and Gertie are living in Bart's house, and the former music industry mover and shaker has a considerably less exciting job driving a streetsweeper. He's also dealing with the familiar pitfalls of being a single parent, although the father/daughter relationship is mainly healthy. Ollie's life is even given a much-needed shot in the arm when he meets the attractive Maya (Liv Tyler), a grad student who works at the local video store (which features many prominently displayed Miramax videos on its shelves). After one of their early encounters turns physical, the two agree that it was a mistake, and awkwardly tiptoe around their romantic feelings while maintaining a platonic friendship. Along the way, Ollie learns that being a parent is an altogether more difficult task than he realized.
I'm not sure if there's a director working with this sort of high profile talent who displays any less instinct for handling actors than Kevin Smith. He shapes the scenes in a manner that allows for no chemistry to develop between the characters. When a scene is covered in one master shot, it's apparent that it would play better utilizing cuts; conversely, when you wish the director would let the actors interact without any sort of manipulation, a scene will fall into a repetitive pattern of cutting between close-ups of talking heads. The editing, courtesy of Smith and producer Scott Mosier, is the technical low point of the film. The movie lacks any sense of pace, and the use of dissolves in the scene where Ollie reacts to the news of his wife's death makes the moment border on self-parody. Recruiting ace D.P. Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter) to shoot the film adds a touch of class to the proceedings, but even his legendary talent can't rectify the majority of Smith's flat, on-the-nose compositions. The interiors, especially, are shot in a boring, sitcom-esque style.
After years of dispensing crude and clever (to his fans, anyway) dialogue, who would've guessed that Smith would grow up to be such a sap? Any time a moment of melodrama invades this movie, you can bet an embarrassingly overwrought music cue will drop in to hammer the point home. Smith previously exposed emotional vulnerability in Chasing Amy and, as flawed as that movie may have been, it felt sincere. Here the emotions are all manufactured and sterile—seemingly informed more by other movies than real life (ironic, as Smith calls this his most personal film to date). An intense argument between Ollie and Gertie near the end of the second act plays exactly like a watered-down version of Kramer vs. Kramer. The scenes focusing exclusively on the interaction between parent and child are at best lifelessly neutral and often gratingly cutesy.
As Gertie, Raquel Castro is unfortunately more annoying than endearing. Smith plainly asks the young actress to do too much (just like he commanded his cast of nonprofessionals to regurgitate his hopelessly wordy dialogue in Clerks). The actress certainly isn't helped by the multitude of maudlin close-ups the director inserts of her. (Insipid reaction shots are scattered all throughout the film.) Liv Tyler and Ben Affleck's near romance contains no spark and is doomed from the start thanks to the implausible, male-fantasy manner in which Tyler 's character asks the man on their first date. As for Affleck, if his career does continue on its current downward trajectory, there will be no more defining scene of failure than the one he shares in this movie with Will Smith (playing himself). I, quite frankly, am totally incapable of describing how shockingly bad this sequence is.
When I learned that Smith aimed to deviate from his norm with Jersey Girl, I was curiously optimistic to see what the new, ostensibly more mature version of the filmmaker would accomplish. Little did I know that Jersey Girl would take the weakest aspects of the director's previous output and strip away any elements that made his films unique. The result: one of the worst movies I've seen thus far in 2004.
© March 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
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