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Film review

'Jersey Girl' has heart

Not that there's anything wrong with that. In fact, it's an interesting shift for director Kevin Smith.

By STEVE PERSALL
Published March 25, 2004

  photo
[Photo: Miramax Films]
In Jersey Girl, Ben Affleck plays Ollie Trinke, a grieving widower and father of Gertie, played by Raquel Castro.
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Watching Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl is like reuniting with a college beer buddy and learning that he cleaned up his act. It's nice spending time with the movie, you miss the old days, and you know the change is for the better. But if you were anticipating another binge, you wish the change didn't have to happen just now.

Jersey Girl isn't your child's Kevin Smith movie (Clerks, Dogma). The humor is sweetened to his first PG-13 level. Jay and Silent Bob aren't here and they kept their drugs with them. There's a plot with a beginning, middle and end. There's a cute kid from the Dakota Fanning school of acting. Someone even makes one of those runs through the streets to a reconciliation that the sappiest movies employ.

But the movie has heart, which wouldn't be as remarkable if Smith weren't the filmmaker pouring it out on the screen. Jersey Girl is his first stab at playing it straight, after fatherhood and the death of his own father made Smith reconsider his style. It's probably a pendulum effect; he'll swing back to something more unconventional and settle somewhere in-between. It's interesting to watch him work this side of the pendulum though, with such conviction. The plot is screenwriter's-pitch perfect: Successful man marries beautiful woman who dies during childbirth, leaving him to raise a precocious daughter after his career fails. Add a romantic interest for the grieving widower, give him a grumpy dad for comic relief and the script writes itself. Smith occasionally allows that to happen.

Ben Affleck delivers a relaxed performance as Ollie Trinke, a music industry publicist who has it all in the early 1990s, especially when he meets Gertrude, played by Affleck's ex-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez in a case of unfortunate timing that may overshadow how good she is. In only 15 minutes of screen time, Affleck and Lopez show us what Gigli should have, an easy chemistry that, by all gossipy accounts, won't happen again.

Ollie blows his career when he insults a roomful of reporters and the star he's shilling, a rapper named Will Smith who wants to be a movie star. Flash forward seven years. Smith is a movie star and Ollie is back in New Jersey fixing sewers. His daughter Gertie (Raquel Castro) has been mostly left in the care of her grandfather (George Carlin) and his bar buddies. Ollie has been too busy with self-pity and trying to resurrect his career.

Smith keeps this material slightly less sentimental than it sounds, adding a few mildly tasteless gags to balance out the dewy conversations. Those emotional moments have more than the usual ring of truth as Smith works out his feelings. Carlin is a prickly presence and Castro is a natural before the cameras. Even Ollie's rebound romance with a video store clerk (Liv Tyler) has a sharper edge - she's studying sex at college - than safer filmmakers would display.

Jersey Girl has problems, to be certain. The third act is particularly flabby when Ollie gets sage advice from an unlikely source, racing back to make Gertie's school recital. Her choice of song to perform is a joke that shouldn't be spoiled but Smith does so by letting it drag on too long. He also has a tough time finishing the movie after everything has been settled.

However, I can't recall when a so-so movie left me so eager to see it again. Contrary to everything we've learned about Kevin Smith in the movies, Jersey Girl is sweetly predictable, emotionally manipulative and tamed for mass appeal. Sometimes it isn't the message that's important, but the messenger.

Jersey Girl

Grade: B

Director: Kevin Smith

Cast: Ben Affleck, Raquel Castro, Liv Tyler, George Carlin, Jason Biggs, Jennifer Lopez

Screenplay: Kevin Smith

Rating: PG-13; profanity, sexual situations, crude humor

Running time: 103 min.

[Last modified May 5, 2004, 10:55:47]


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