[box cover]

Jersey Girl

Miramax Home Video

Starring Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Racquel Castro, George Carlin

Written and directed by Kevin Smith

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

Writer-director Kevin Smith's 2004 dramedy, Jersey Girl, might have fared better with critics and ticket-buyers if it had arrived with the credit line "Directed by Ron Howard." Anyone expecting "a Kevin Smith movie" — a distinctively indie-feeling, taboo-snubbing, profane youth comedy — was bound to be surprised by this zealously mainstream and sentimental ode to parenthood, family relationships, and personal growth through tragedy and grief. Love them or hate them, Smith's earlier films had always been originals. But compared to what came before, Jersey Girl was oddly tepid and formulaic. On it own terms it succeeds as a warm and trite heartstring-tugger. So, had expectations been set for a warm and trite director without Smith's reputation for smartassery, the tissue-light Jersey Girl might have found an audience larger and more appreciative than the one it got.

Moreover, it fell victim to the lousy timing of Ben Affleck/Jennifer Lopez PR overload. "Bennifer" fever gripped our People magazine-addled nation like the Medieval dancing sickness. The resulting backlash against Jersey Girl's marquee stars — especially on the Internet and post-Gigli — was so deranged that, in response, Miramax delayed Jersey Girl's premiere, and the retooled marketing campaign turned Lopez's surprise early screen death into a selling point. (Says Smith in a commentary on this DVD, "As soon as we started testing the movie, the backlash started hard... an anti-J.Lo vibe.") Worse, recutting yanked Lopez's death scene to an earlier point in the plot, a truncation that only hurt the final version.* Too late. By the time Jersey Girl showed up, fatigued audiences already wanted something new.

And "something new" is what Jersey Girl offers the least of. It's a sweet movie — treacly and familiar but dotted with some funny and resonant touches. The thing is, we've seen its Hallmark Moments before. There's not much that's fresh in this low-key story of a father, Ollie Trinke (Affleck), forced to redefine himself and learn What's Important after his wife (Lopez) dies during childbirth. When a public meltdown at a Will Smith press conference destroys his workaholic career as a Manhattan publicist, he moves in, bitter and resentful, with his crusty, hard-drinking father (George Carlin, always welcome) and takes a hardhat job in his New Jersey hometown. Seven years later, the catalyst for Ollie's midlife growing-up is his precocious daughter, Gertie (Raquel Castro). She's assisted by Maya (Liv Tyler), a collegiate video store clerk determined to cure Ollie's emotional breakage, particularly his seven-year bout of a solo sex life. His moment of truth comes with Gertie's school performance of a scene from Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, though if you've seen About a Boy or any other parent comedy in the past ten years, a sense of deja vu is the most powerful emotional response the moment generates.

Everyone in the cast turns in good (at least good enough) work. Affleck, always more at home in a Kevin Smith movie than in an action-thriller, gets to show more chops than he's usually given credit for having. Liv Tyler is a charming non-elven fantasy sweetheart and brings to the film a sorely needed spark of spontaneity. If little Castro were any more doe-eyed cute she'd be a Disney cartoon. As usual for Smith, his best scenes are the small, intimate ones that let his cast relax and enjoy the laid-back, loquacious feel of it. Tyler's self-possessed Maya is classic Smith, uninhibited in her speech and in her jaunty directness on subjects that probably make viewers in Utah squirm. So she represents a problematic twist in the film's DNA. Because Jersey Girl's breezy treatment of porn, masturbation, and casual fucking don't mix easily within its "family friendly" shell, for a while it wobbles when straddling both sides of the cultural divide between Nerve.com and Reader's Digest.

Carlin (hardly an example of paternal reserve in his standup comedy) so understates his performance that we're in danger of missing its proof that less really can be more. His Bart Trinke is rooted like an oak tree to his co-worker buddies, the corner bar where they hang out, and the blue-collar life Ollie is desperate to put behind him. From old Carl's first encounter with his spitfire daughter-in-law, who accepts him in ways that his son does not, he's the center of a dynamic only spasmodically explored in the movie: the way class and birthplace, and our responses to them, shape who we think we are later on. Whenever Jersey Girl refocuses onto Ollie's resistance to accepting his father, we see in Carlin's quiet steadiness an emotional substrata that should have been rototilled more fully.

With cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Deliverance, Close Encounters, The Deer Hunter) at the lens, Jersey Girl looks more polished and mature than Smith's previous films. We also get reminders of Smith's signature strengths, chiefly his flair for dialogue, that hangup-free attitude toward sex, and a sense that he wants to chat with sincerity on self-revealing subjects. Now a thirty-something husband and father growing away from his adolescence-heavy "askewniverse" films, in Jersey Girl he exposes his own inner Ollie Trinke, a move utterly in character for this most on-the-sleeve of popular directors. His big-hearted spirit runs through every scene.

Unfortunately, when he stretches his canvas onto the square frame of conventional Hollywood formula (especially the third-act climax), he works against his strengths. Smith is like a short-story writer for The New Yorker, deft at close-in character studies built on ear-catching dialogue and small personal epiphanies, trying his hand at a potboiler blockbuster novel. Instead of rising to the challenge and building on a more interesting, less constricting anti-formula, he took the easy path of paint-by-numbers plotting and some Lifetime Channel histrionics. The screenplay speaks from the heart, no doubt, but it's also pat and gives us no surprises, no unique creative topspin.

In several ways Jersey Girl is more appealing than Clerks or Mallrats (an assessment sure to send anyone under legal drinking age into a foaming frenzy). Nonetheless, it lacks the smart observational-humor edge and often thoughtful boldness — and, most frustratingly, the promise — of Chasing Amy or Dogma.

Only hard-hearted cynics could actively dislike Jersey Girl, not that there's any shortage of those in any case. However, a legitimate gripe against the film is that it tries too hard to be liked. Instead of Smith's patented brazen envelope-pushing, Jersey Girl offers us a snuggle. Snuggles are nice. But we also want and need our envelopes pushed too.

*          *          *

* The two commentary tracks on this DVD indicate rather strongly that the original, longer version of Jersey Girl was focus-grouped to death, so what "edge" it once had seems to have been smoothed away under the Black & Decker power sander of creativity-by-consensus. At this point, I'm duty-bound to insert a little backstory:

In January 2003, I accepted an invitation from Smith to attend a "friends and co-workers" screening of Jersey Girl in L.A. With Smith sitting immediately behind me (and David Duchovny in front of me), the Jersey Girl we watched was a nearly final cut significantly different from the eventual theatrical release on this DVD. It was a longer, stronger film. The scenes depicting how Ollie and his wife meet, then their courtship and marriage, were fuller and fleshed out. Jennifer Lopez received much more screen time (and, yes, she was fine). Their relationship didn't feel rushed and glossed-over. Her death was therefore a bigger event and a more impactful moment in a film that, frankly, couldn't afford to lose its impactful moments. Therefore, at least for us married men in the audience, her death and Ollie's grieving carried some power. Also more affecting was a well-delivered intensity from Affleck in the gut-punch of Ollie's shock and grief.

All that's been whittled down in this version, and to the film's loss. Other cut scenes that I remember fondly include the denoument's lovely return of Lopez over Tom Waits' song "Jersey Girl" (now covered by Bruce Springsteen during the closing credits). That version of Jersey Girl didn't so much tug the heartstrings as hook them to the trailer hitch of a Humvee, but because it didn't pull its emotional punches it worked more boldly. It felt more honest and less directed by Marketing. There was hardly a dry Ray-Ban'd or Botoxed eye in the house, and I, a sentimental softie, ended the film smiling and misty-eyed. Smith's mom told me that when they saw Harvey Weinstein wiping his eyes, they knew that Jersey Girl was the film they'd been shooting for. Afterward, I talked with Smith for a while, and he acknowledged that although its unflinching sentimentality was going make him a target for some critics, he'd achieved the film he wanted.

In this disc's two commentary tracks, Smith mentions that earlier version several times, and he details the changes prompted by focus group after focus group. The good news is that on both tracks he says that an extended version of Jersey Girl for DVD is in the works. Whether it will be the same cut that I saw in January '03, I don't know. But (if it actually happens) it will be a version that's not as flat as this one, even if it still won't appeal to viewers with an incurable allergy to sentimentality. According to the commentaries, crowd psychology prompted some key edits after giggly teens crippled emotional and dramatic peaks with nervous titters. So Jersey Girl may be a movie better suited to finding its audience via home viewing rather than in the multiplex at the mall.

*          *          *

This Miramax DVD release loads up the stuff Smith's fans have come to expect from his well-received Special Editions, namely two garrulous commentary tracks in which Smith and friends aren't shy about "working blue" while also dishing up plenty of information and insights into the View Askew filmmaking process. Even long-time Smith fans who don't care for Jersey Girl will find plenty to love here.

Firstly, of course, there's Jersey Girl itself. The film looks super in its original 2.35:1 (anamorphic). The print is clean and sharp, and there's nothing to complain about in the transfer. The solid and clear DD 5.1 audio stays front-centric with a little background support from the surround speakers.

The commentary tracks kick off with Kevin Smith and Ben Affleck enjoying a reunion of two close pals and co-workers. Their lively and refreshingly ribald conversation only occasionally calls attention to what's happening on the screen, though we do get ample first-person accounts of the film's conception, development, and production. When the "Bennifer" craziness is addressed, Affleck speaks about his relationship with Lopez in frank but not rancorous terms. Smith weighs in on the effect that the tabloidization of that relationship had on the film's reception. At some length Smith discusses the all-over-the-map critical responses to Jersey Girl. Whenever Smith and Affleck get together for one of these, they come across as two relaxed, no-bullshit guys you'd really enjoy having over to the house for drinks and smokes and a Cartoon Network marathon. This track is no exception. Affleck says that "Professionally speaking, I'm more proud of this movie than I've been of anything I've done," and we have no reason to not believe him.

The second commentary brings together Smith, long-time View Askew producer Scott Mosier, and the incongruity of "special guest" Jason "Jay" Mewes. This one maintains the tone of the previous track, though Mosier keeps the more production-oriented trains of thought on track. If you're weirdly yearning for another round of the stoner burnout Mewes who passed out at the mike during the Clerks commentary, you've got another thing coming. Now 29 and off the hard stuff, Mewes is getting his shit together. But fear not, long-time listeners: While opening up about his "lost year" of total drug fuckupedness and rehab ("I was the walking dead"), he also shows that he still possesses no filters when it comes to his masturbation techniques, his sexual count, and his explication of the connection between farting and the Lee Strasberg "Method" approach to acting. It's a packed and funny and even sometimes informative track.

From Mallrats to Jersey Girl: Kevin Smith and Ben Affleck Talk Shop (27:07) — The director and the actor lounge in a production booth to discuss their professional and personal history throughout five films. Supported by film clips and loads of good-natured mutual ribbing.

Roadside Attractions with Kevin Smith — Originally aired as part of Smith's erstwhile regular feature on The Tonight Show, these quick "on the road to find weird shit" segments follow Smith to sites in upstate New York (5:31)), Orlando (5:28), Tampa (5:24), Seattle (5:08), and finally the Jersey Girl set (6:51) with Affleck, Tyler, and others.

Behind the Scenes of Jersey Girl (16:20) — Here's a routine but enjoyable-enough featurette with Smith, Affleck, Lopez, Raquel Castro, George Carlin, and Mosier.

Rounding out the extras are a collection of click-through text interviews with cast and production staffers. They're well-written and informative, so worth a look. On hand are Smith, Affleck, Tyler, Castro, Carlin, Matt Damon (who has a cameo with Jason Lee in the film), Mosier, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, production designer Robert "Ratface" Holtzman, and costume designer Juliet Polcsa.

—Mark Bourne

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