Early in Jersey Girl, Ben Affleck cries. It’s a grim and alarming moment. First, he’s nowhere near convincing as an earnest young man in pain. That’s not to say he doesn’t have motivation, only that he is, you know, Ben Affleck. His character, Ollie Trinké, fancy New York City publicist, is finally facing up to the death of his beautiful, vibrant wife during childbirth. Second, well… let’s just say the situation is ludicrous. For a sad minute, his dad (George Carlin) peeks in the door, in time to see poor Ollie break down in front of the infant Gertie, because she so needs him and because she so reminds him of her mother. That would be Gertrude, played briefly by Jennifer Lopez.
Affleck and his buddy Kevin Smith have worked overtime in the past month to push past the Bennifer meltdown, appearing on Leno and Larry King, Dateline and SNL. It’s a peculiar strategy, piling excessive publicity on top of excessive publicity: here’s Ben making fun of Gigli, here’s Kevin making fun of Mel Gibson, here’s Katie sympathizing with the difficulties of a high profile romance. Though none of this campaign has much to do with the movie, it does underline the wondrous cunning of movie marketing, not that it needs underlining. The new Ben Affleck movie is less a movie than a chance for him to redeem himself for all those tabloid photos.
Unfortunately, even for all the pressy push, Jersey Girl is a less than inspired movie. It’s easy to feel happy for Smith, that he’s discovered the joys of fatherhood, and it’s even easier to feel happy that he’s found perky little Raquel Castro to play Gertie, post-infancy. Though she lapses occasionally into that too-adorable affect (as if she has been told repeatedly that she is adorable), she holds up her end with the adults. She makes Affleck look less stiff, and keeps up with Carlin and Liv Tyler, who survived Armageddon with Affleck, and here reveals previously unknown comedic pizzazz as Ollie’s love interest.
Ollie’s discovery of this love interest, whose name is Maya, is about as standard as can be. Before Gertrude’s death, he’s working in the city with a client list that includes Madonna and an up-and-coming MC called the Fresh Prince. After a miserable hospital waiting room scene, wherein the doctor actually says, “We lost her, Ollie,” the new dad returns to Highlands, New Jersey to live with his pop, Bart. Though he tries to juggle his job, commute, and baby, Ollie devolves into a spectacular meltdown at a Hard Rock Café, his designer jacket covered with his baby’s powder as he tells the assembled reporters that his client, Will Smith, is a “two-bit actor.”
Duly fired but newly freed of the pressure to lie for lots of money, Ollie takes a new gig cleaning streets alongside his dad. The film cuts forward to Gertie as a seven-year-old, looking for videos in the local store where Maya, um, clerks. Sweet, bighearted, and pretty, she offers to loosen up Ollie, obviously still driven, still pining for the dead wife, still not emotionally available. When Gertie arrives home from school and catches them half-dressed, hiding in the shower, the effect is less cute than it might have been if you hadn’t seen about 400 versions of this scene before.
The romance, buoyed by Maya’s offbeat affect (Tyler’s not nearly so stifled here as in, say, the Lord of the Rings films), doesn’t have much function in the plot. Perhaps most importantly, it keeps Ollie from becoming too wrapped up in the father-daughter thing (that wouldn’t be healthy, and Gertie is beginning to notice boys, anyway). Though it’s hinted that Bart wasn’t exactly a doting dad back in the day, he now provides a worth role model for Ollie, who can’t seem to stop himself from scheming to get back into the world where he feels most appreciated and capable, the plastic world of celebrity promotions. When he finally has a chance to interview with a mucky-muck Manhattan firm, Maya offers sage advice: he shouldn’t choose work over Gertie. Don’t you wonder what choice he’ll make in the end?
It’s less worrisome that he’s faced with an either-or choice, or that he chooses the nominally conservative option, than it is that Kevin Smith structured the film so that no other resolution even seems possible. This is the guy whose previous films stretched and even distorted narrative possibilities. Whether or not you like the plot change-ups in Chasing Amy or the breakdown in Dogma, at least they took risks. The new movie is at once clumsily structured and cozy, without surprises, unless you count using “My City of Ruins” as soundtrack for Ollie’s montage-of-realization that he has to put his daughter first: linking Springsteen’s famous post-9/11 anthem with this callow dad’s better-late-than-never maturity is not a little awkward. At least he doesn’t cry.