Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Jersey Girl

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

JERSEY GIRL

5/10

USA 2004 : Kevin SMITH : 102 mins

Manhattan, 1994. Hotshot publicist Ollie Trinke (Ben Affleck) is overjoyed when his beautiful new wife Gertrude (Jennifer Lopez) becomes pregnant. But when Gertrude dies giving birth to their daughter Gertie, Ollie’s world rapidly falls apart. Eight years later, he’s back home in small-town New Jersey, working as a bin-man alongside dad Bart (George Carlin), and bringing up his endearingly precocious daughter (Raquel Castro). Still in love with Gertrude, Ollie hasn’t looked at another woman since her death – until a chance encounter in a video-store brings the kooky-but-stunning Maya (Liv Tyler) into his life…

Initially conceived as the latest collaboration between the then-golden couple Affleck and Lopez, Jersey Girl saw its release-date repeatedly pushed back after the pair became embroiled in the Gigli fiasco and endured a very public split-up. It seems likely that some hasty rewriting and re-editing took place in the interim: Lopez’s character is dispatched with almost unseemly haste, and J-Lo is conspicuously absent from the film’s anodyne poster which foregrounds Tyler and Affleck.

In many respects, Jersey Girl is a standard-issue romantic comedy. The bereaved-dad-left-holding-baby set-up is lifted from 1995’s Jack & Sarah. And Ollie’s dilemma – between love/family/town on one hand and work/success/city on the other – is an over-simplistic, over-familiar one in current US cinema (cf Steve Martin in Cheaper by the Dozen).

But it’s surprising to see this kind of schmaltzy, multiplex-oriented fare from indie-auteur Smith – who, since 1994’s low-budget, high-invention Clerks, has carved an idiosyncratic, breezily scatological indie niche with Mallrats (1995), Chasing Amy (1997), Dogma (1999) and Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back (2001).

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so taken aback, however: Smith is now the proud father of a 5-year-old daughter, and Jersey Girl is very much the work of a young dad catapulted into maturity by discovering the joys and responsibilities of parenthood (a end-title “For my Dad” dedication to Smith’s recently-deceased father proclaims “I miss you, Pop.”) There are intermittent flashes of the ‘old’ Smith in some of the dialogue, situations and characters. But there are also too many scenes that fall oddly flat, as if Smith didn’t quite spend enough time on the details.

There’s an clumsily overegged gag about the of popularity of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s song ‘Memory,’ for example, while a closing-stretch cameo from Will Smith, for instance, represents a distinctly missed opportunity. And what’s this baffling reference to Smith’s “robot-movie” – presumably summer ’04 tentpole I Robot – in a film which can’t be taking place any later than 2002?

The film’s shortcomings aren’t the fault of the performers, of course – Castro, in what’s virtually a lead performance, is much more successful at avoiding teary-eyed-moppet pitfalls than her writer-director. Tyler isn’t stretched as a ditzy knockout, though Affleck is less convincing as Ollie the dedicated dad than he is as Ollie the conceited asshole: long before his ascent to superstar status, Affleck enjoyed his finest hour as a thoroughly obnoxious yuppie type in Smith’s anarchic satire Mallrats.

Smith would perhaps be better served to return to that kind of juvenile territory: his choice of ‘adult’ material is the real problem here, forcing to fight a running uphill battle against mawkishness, predictability and cliche – to which he somewhat tamely surrenders with a sappy “I love you, daddy” finale. Bringing up Gertie is, Ollie proclaims at one stage, “The one thing I’m really good at.” On the evidence of Jersey Girl – though often sweet and clearly heartfelt – Smith’s aptitude for sentimental family-values romantic comedies is considerably less worthy of boast.

11th June, 2004
(seen 3rd June : Vue, Leicester : press show – Cinema Days event)

by Neil Young