Ollie Trinke (Ben Affleck) is a hotshot Manhattan publicist working the early 90s scene with ease and success beyond his years. When he meets Gertrude (Jennifer Lopez, in a role that lasts only 10 minutes), he falls in love, and soon a daughter named Gertie (Raquel Castro) enters his life. But tragedy takes Gertrude away during childbirth, leaving Ollie alone with a baby that he isn’t prepared to raise. Losing his job out of frustration, Ollie moves in with his father (George Carlin) in New Jersey, and starts a new life working for the sanitation department. As Gertie grows older, Ollie work relentlessly trying to reenter the publicity biz. He has no luck for a long time, and when he gets his first real chance to reclaim his old life, his new life, including a local video store clerk that has a crush on him (Liv Tyler), forces Ollie to confront the situation he's in, and the one he believes he wants.
Writer/director Kevin Smith has made a certain type of film for almost ten years now. Crude, uproariously profane, and often too fanboyish films (“Clerks,” “Mallrats, “Chasing Amy“), but they have served him well. “Jersey Girl” (IMDb listing) is Smith’s first effort to abandon the antics of Jay and Silent Bob, snowballing, and Buddy Christ. While this new dramedy isn’t exactly Woody Allen’s “Interiors,” it is a pretty large departure for a filmmaker who created a character known simply as “The Cocknocker” in his last film.
“Jersey Girl” is a modest, gracious story about a father and his daughter, and their ever-changing relationship with the world and themselves. Smith has never worked in this type of cinema before, and lesser talents have fallen mightily when trying to dip a toe into pools they’ve never swam in. But Smith has a true gift from the heavens, and that is his voice. One of the best screenwriters in the business, Smith soaks “Jersey” with a rich understanding of the characters, on par with a great Cameron Crowe film. The saga of Gertie and Ollie might appear saccharine on paper, but in the film it’s a tender, honest relationship that can blend truthful challenges of the heart with the heightened movie situations that are needed to add levity to the story. The limits of Smith’s abilities as a director can be seen in some of the obvious patchwork montages to cover deleted sequences. But for a first try at a mass appeal motion picture, “Jersey Girl” is one of the few exceedingly heartfelt and genuinely touching films out there in the marketplace.
That isn’t to say Smith has completely jumped ship. “Jersey” might not fall into his “View Askew” legacy of productions, but familiar nods to “Star Wars,” video stores, and quick cameos by Jason Lee and Matt Damon, help remind audiences of the joy that Smith has for his cinematic world. It’s a little unnerving not to hear a tsunami of expletives or see Kevin Smith’s unique brand of stoner slapstick, but every filmmaker has to grow a little. I’m just glad to see that as huge a diagonal move as this is away from his Silent Bob past, Smith still cares enough to make sure his fans aren’t left behind.
For those that have written Ben Affleck off after his “Gigli” debacle last summer (a film that isn’t that bad, but it made excellent copy), I beg you to see “Jersey Girl” and tell me that this misunderstood actor isn’t excellent. Ollie is a thorny role, balancing volatile selfish needs with sitcomy new dad material (there is the requisite dirty diaper scene), and Affleck completely inhabits his character from the get go. You believe him in this painful situation, and in this, his 5th collaboration with Smith, the actor is as loose and appealing as ever. As a vengeful angel in Smith’s brilliant “Dogma,” Affleck really opened up as an actor, and performed at a career best. “Jersey Girl” represents another stellar collaboration with Smith; the two perfectly in tune the entire run of the show.
Supporting turns by young Raquel Castro (who has got Lopez’s mannerisms down pat), a cantankerous and delightful George Carlin, and a lovable Liv Tyler add to the experience. Reteaming for the first time since 1998’s “Armageddon,” Tyler and Affleck make a serene on-screen couple, and their flirtatious interplay in “Jersey Girl” does wonders to erase memories of the unappetizing animal crackers sequence in the Michael Bay blockbuster asteroid film. All is forgiven, you two.
Normally when a director veers off course this severely (I mean, come on, this film is PG-13 for heavens sake!), it’s a train wreck. But Smith is a fantastic filmmaker, and even without The Cocknocker, he’s a talent that could pretty much cover any genre without getting in over his head. If the solid “Jersey Girl” is any indication, his future looks very bright.
Filmfodder Grade: A-