Jersey Girl

Liv Tyler is a lot like Neve Campbell.  The minute you see her you want to know everything about her.  She has a smile that is so incandescent and inviting you can’t concentrate on anything else.  Her sexuality is barely contained and she couldn’t be happier.  (I’m happy, too.)  Campbell had this effect on me in Three To Tango which, despite her warm, sexy presence, was a terrible movie.  Tyler works her magic on me in Kevin Smith’s Jersey Girl, easily his worst movie.
The movie stars Ben Affleck as a highly successful New York publicist at the peak of his powers.  Not yet 30, in the mid-1990s he commands a staff of 100 underlings to help promote various musicians like George Michael (which inspires a funny moment during the opening credits).  He falls in love with a New York book editor (Jennifer Lopez) and soon they are engaged.  After a drunken night of wild sex and pizza, Lopez gets knocked up.  While in labour, she strains herself to the point of an aneurysm and dies after her little girl is successfully delivered. 
Shortly thereafter, Affleck’s world quickly unravels.  He goes back to work way too soon hoping his highly demanding job will distract his grief.  He takes out his frustrations on fellow employee Jason Biggs.  He neglects his daughter much to the consternation of his crusty father (George Carlin in a wasted supporting role) who wonders aloud when his son is going to start acting like a father.  Living at home with his dad in New Jersey while commuting to NYC greatly adds to his stress.
Affleck very quickly becomes cranky and abrasive, and he eventually completely loses it during a press conference that’s been scheduled for a very absent Will Smith.  Holding his crying daughter and staring at an impatient press corps that, I kid you not, are chanting "Fresh Prince" over and over again, he blows his top, insults the media and worst of all, bashes The Fresh Prince so badly that after an uncomfortable moment of silence, one reporter correctly notes that his career in publicity is over.
Skip ahead 7 years to the year 2003.  Affleck’s daughter is in the first grade (shouldn’t she be in the second?) and they both continue to live with Carlin whom Affleck works with on such glamourous projects as street sweeping and putting in new water mains. 
Affleck has been so devoted to his deceased wife that he hasn’t had a date (or even sex) since her untimely death in 1996.  We learn this after an encounter with the aforementioned Liv Tyler who, quite honestly, isn’t on-screen nearly enough for my liking.  She’s a free spirited video clerk who has an immediate attraction to Affleck who still doesn’t seem ready to move on with his personal life.  But Tyler persists.  Not taking no for an answer she convinces a reluctant Affleck to go to lunch with her and then she wears him down for a potential mercy hump that never gets past the disrobing stage because his daughter comes home from school and finds them hiding in the shower.
Let me stop right there.  The problem with this movie is the way Ben Affleck’s character is written and how he plays him.  He’s really 3 characters in one.  He’s the unconvincing crybaby one moment (time to hire an acting coach, Ben), the jerky, self-absorbed publicist in the next moment and then, incredibly, he’s father of the year.  At any time during the movie, one of these personalities announces itself and then is taken over by another personality and it really wrecks the movie. 
It also doesn’t help that Affleck has zilcho chemistry with his former real-life fiance and his co-star from Armageddon.  (He didn’t have any chemistry with Uma Thurman in Paycheck, either, but at least that was an entertaining action picture which didn’t really depend so much on romance.)  We don’t miss Jennifer Lopez when she, rather unconvincingly, croaks in the delivery room (that seems convenient) and we can’t quite understand what attracts the adorable Liv Tyler to the grieving widow.  (There is so much joy and sweetness in her performance that I couldn’t catch her acting.  It’s an underappreciated role for her.)
It’s pretty sad when the young girl playing your daughter outshines you in every scene you have together.  Raquel Castro, making her debut here, is wonderful and does something particularly well.  She’s a sweetheart who doesn’t get on your nerves or make you want to brush your teeth.  I’d like to see her in more films.  She has a sweet, innocent presence onscreen and you wish she had a stronger actor playing her dad. 
The big climax of the film involves Affleck having to make a big decision.  His old pal, Jason Biggs, secures him a big interview with the fastest-growing PR firm in NYC.  He has never given up trying to get back into the publicity business and finally, he may be given a second chance after his Will Smith screw-up.
Unfortunately, it’s scheduled an hour before his daughter’s Fall Pageant, where students and some of their family members perform show tunes for the audience.  (Is it really believable that almost everybody would get to do "Memory" from Cats?) Affleck’s interview is at 4 p.m. and the school assembly starts at 5.  Can he do both?  Should he let his father sub for him at the Pageant while he tries to get his once-bright career shining again?  Should he skip the interview altogether in order to be there for his daughter? 
It doesn’t take a genius to figure it all out.   And, yes, a couple of Affleck’s personalities come to the forefront during this sometimes amusing, mostly predictable third act.  Let’s just say that About A Boy this isn’t.
Kevin Smith is a talented guy.  I liked Dogma (except for parts of the ending) and even though Chasing Amy didn’t quite make it for me there was some strong writing there.  (He writes remarkably strong female characters, I’m noticing.) When you see one of his movies (and I’m slowly getting caught up) there’s going to be something to like no matter the overall quality.  Jersey Girl is no exception.  And yet, you can’t help but think he’s slumming here.  He’s made, essentially, a predictable, unmoving formula film about a jerk who comes crashing down to Earth to discover the life he never would’ve experienced had his wife survived her traumatic ordeal in the delivery room.  The overuse of music to convey feeling when the story and the characters can’t do the job gets old very quickly.  The sudden personality shifts that Affleck goes through are annoying.  And the lack of a consistent comedic rhythm is very disappointing despite the few, amusing, isolated moments.
Jersey Girl is a formulaic mess that hopefully will teach Smith an important lesson about filmmaking.  Stick to what you know.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, July 23, 2006
2:19 a.m.
Published in: on July 23, 2006 at 2:30 am  Leave a Comment  

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