Doing Jersey Girl was kind of way different for me.
— Kevin Smith, “Behind the Scenes Special: Jersey Girl“
I don’t look back and think, like, bad year of my life. Not at all.
— Ben Affleck, commentary track, Jersey Girl
Kevin Smith can’t help but mention it. “Gigli,” he says, “was the dark specter, the albatross that hung around this fuckin’ movie’s neck and then eventually kind of hurt it at the box office.” He makes this or a related point more than once, as he has a couple of interviews as well as two commentary tracks on Miramax’s DVD of Jersey Girl (one track with Ben Affleck, the other with producer Scott Mosier and Jason Mewes, Jay of “Jay and Silent Bob”). “As soon as we started testing the movie, the backlash started hard… an anti-J.Lo vibe.”
While this vibe might account for some of the film’s feeble box office, it’s also true that Jersey Girl is a bland affair, in which a nominal highlight is Affleck’s tears. The commentary tracks are, in fact, more amusing and provocative than the film proper. When Smith and Mewes discuss the reason for the latter’s absence from the film — though Smith wrote the Jason Biggs part for him — it’s hard not to respect their honesty concerning Mewes’ heroin addiction, and eventually, the warrant for his arrest in New Jersey. Smith explains that the actor’s year of hardcore addiction was spent not looking to get high, but to keep from puking. “Bad time, dark year,” observes Smith, hooking it to the movie that’s running beneath their voices. “It kind of mirrors what’s going on in the movie right now, as Jennifer’s character is dying.” Mewes agrees, laughing now, after a year of sobriety: “I was the walking dead.”
Affleck and Smith talk lots about shooting details and feelings about their chosen fields, their mutual esteem and affection audible. Other extras include an interview with Smith and Affleck talking about their long-time friendship (“From Mallrats to Jersey Girl“), text interviews with cast and crew, originally conducted for one of Smith’s websites, and five Tonight Show “Roadside Attraction” segments, in which Smith travels the U.S. touristy and backroads attractions. None of these is so compelling as the commentary tracks (Affleck loves Pitt’s performance in Snatch; Smith wants to be able to defend his movie in discussion with critics, before subjective-by-definition reviews are published). “There’s not a movie that you haven’t seen before,” says Affleck, rightly. What’s important is the execution.
In this context, Affleck’s Ollie Trinké, a fancy New York City publicist, early on comes face to face with tragedy, when the love of his life, Gertrude (Lopez), dies during childbirth. As he’s moved to cry in front of his infant daughter Gertie, his father (George Carlin) peeks in the door (“It was so much fun to go to work every day with George Carlin,” sys Affleck). From here, Jersey Girl ranges from affectionate, moving family moments to obvious heart-string-tugging. 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 here reveals previously unknown comedic pizzazz as Ollie’s love interest, Maya.
Their meeting comes later, which means the set-up is rather protracted. First, 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 Smith structured the film so that no other resolution even seems possible. This is the guy whose earlier 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 his better-late-than-never maturity is not a little awkward. At least he doesn’t cry.