Kevin Smith has had a relatively safe career until now. He found a storytelling style that worked, allowing him to use his quirky characters, witty dialog, and appreciation of a variety of music to mix a cynical social commentary with sex and fart jokes. It's a formula that's worked well for Smith in five films, creating a huge fan base around the world for slacker dope-pushers Jay and Silent Bob and the other characters within the "View Askewniverse". Because Smith quickly recognized what worked for him and continued to harness that through all his films, it feels very strange to see him release a film that's so out of touch with the rest of his body of work. Truly Jersey Girl finally shows Smith's evolution both as a storyteller and a filmmaker.
Some elements of Smith's previous movies do show up in Jersey Girl. The most obvious is the film's star Ben Affleck, who has appeared in all of Smith's prior films sans Clerks. In Jersey Girl Affleck plays Oliver Trinke, a highly successful New York music publicist (or Music Pimp as his all too honest T-Shirt advertises at one point in the film) who meets his book world equivalent in Gertrude Steiney (Jennifer Lopez). The two fall in love and marry, but tragedy strikes when Gertrude dies giving birth to their daughter. Devastated over the loss of his wife, Oliver attempts to get lost in his work, pawning off the care of his daughter to his father Bart (George Carlin) in New Jersey. It isn’t long before Oliver gets caught between the responsibility of being a father and his dedication to his work and commits career suicide during a press conference. With both his wife and career dead in New York, there is nothing left for Oliver to do but pack up and move in with his father to start a new life in New Jersey with newfound dedication as a father.
A pretty risky story to be undertaken by someone who had characters compete in showing off their cunnilingus scars, huh?
Jersey Girl is even more of a risk for Smith since due to situations beyond his control, he will most definitely take flack from more then one side for this film. For the fans that only liked Smith's View Askewniverse movies for the sex and fart jokes, this movie will be extremely boring, as the only real joke along those lines (involving reactions to the contents of a baby's diaper) is played out less then a third of the way into the film, leaving only an emotionally rending comedy/drama about a man and his daughter for the rest of its running time. This movie is intended for a wider audience than only Smith’s previous fan base, and hopefully fans of Smith's other movies who saw past the sophomoric humor and appreciated the conflict and emotion between the characters of those films will still appreciate the human story of Jersey Girl.
Secondly, Smith will take flack for the disaster that was "Bennifer". Already comparisons and comments have been made about Jersey Girl and the failed relationship and movie the couple were involved in prior to Jersey Girl's release. These comparisons are ridiculous. If you can't separate the paparazzi-fest of Affleck & Lopez's relationship from a movie, how do you manage to give any movie that required suspension of belief? Kevin Smith wasn't responsible for Affleck and Lopez's relationship, and Smith didn't direct that other movie. Should Jersey Girl be judged because another director couldn't get the performances out of his cast or just had a bad story to tell? It's not even like it's an Affleck/Lopez movie - Lopez is on screen for less than twenty minutes. To me, the only way "Bennifer" affected this film is that it allowed Smith to take advantage of Affleck and Lopez still being new to each other and in love during the filming of their scenes. That emotion comes across as very real on the screen, and whether that's genuine because the actors were in love, or something the actors were able to gather because that’s their part in making a movie doesn't matter. What does matter is how real it feels while watching, because it makes the loss all that much harder when Lopez's character dies.
Ben Affleck does his best work in this film. I've never been much of an Affleck fan. I like some of the movies he's been in, and my girlfriend loves him for his looks, but his characters have always seemed to be pretty much static, movie after movie delivering more of the same. As much as Jersey Girl forces Smith to evolve both as writer and director, it also pushes Affleck to stretch himself to truly make us believe in him as a single father living with the conflict of career aspirations and a pint-sized curveball. We see the love Trinke has for his daughter, but at the same time the frustration he feels towards his life, and the desire he has to return to the world he left - struggling to find a way back into his old New York world without leaving his daughter and his love for her behind.
The supporting cast does just as well as Affleck. George Carlin keeps his reputation as a crusty old man, but adds some real heart to the part of Oliver’s father Bart. He watches with shame as Oliver all but abandons his daughter for his work, and it’s easy to see the pride in his eyes when Oliver makes the right decisions. Steven Root and Mike Starr add some excellent comedic relief as Bart’s drinking buddies. Raquel Castro is adorable without being precocious as Oliver’s daughter Gertie. She is able to deliver Smith’s signature dialog just as well as any of the cast, and looks exactly like Lopez herself most likely looked at the age of seven. As for Liv Tyler, I've spent the last three years watching her as Arwen in Lord of the Rings, playing regal and elegant. I'd forgotten just how out and out cute she can be, in both appearance and behavior. She is the very definition of "cute" in Jersey Girl, playing an intelligent graduate student and sometimes flirtation for Trinke.
If Jersey Girl has a downside it’s that the film’s plot is predictable. As each of the major plot points appear it’s easy to see where the film is going to go next. Smith’s penchant for dialogue helps keep the film fresh despite this, and his skill in selecting appropriate music adds to the emotional heart of the film. Smith has always been criticized for the poor framing of shots that accompanied his previous films and even this has changed with Jersey Girl. For people who used to look at Smith’s amazing ability to tell a story through sophomoric humor and say, “If only those abilities could be used for the forces of good”, Jersey Girl will be a welcome change of pace, and hopefully a sign of Smith’s bright future.