Jersey Girl (review)

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Geek Gone Bad

So this is what happens when slackers go bad– er, good. Off. “Respectable.” When they defy their nature.

Look, I’ve got no problem with Kevin Smith thinking it was time to grow up. Not that I see anything wrong or even necessarily juvenile with the kind of clever snarkiness and fanboy exuberance that Smith’s movies were full of — my god, he was a geek who made it big, maybe the most famousest of all geeks, and that’s saying something. But after Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Smith told us all he was ready to move on to something… more mature. Okay, fine. I was looking forward to seeing what would spring from the fertile, irreverent imagination of a grown-up geek.
But this? Since when does “growing up” mean “going schmaltzy”? Buddy Christ on a popsicle stick, Jersey Girl, Smith’s first “serious” film, is a sitcom, a mawkish, sentimental single-dad sitcom, with jokes about stinky baby poop and a cute, wiseass kid mugging for the camera. Next week on Jersey Girl: Dad learns a valuable lesson about dadhood and everyone lives happily ever after. Kev, Kevin, the Kevster, the Kevinator… dude, why hast thou forsaken us?

God, and it’s so earnest. And so predictable. You can practically hear the canned laughter when Dad screws up — that’s Dad for ya! — and the prerecorded awwwwwing when the kid turns on the goofy-adorable grin. Dad’s big job interview is on exactly the same day and at exactly the same time as — wait for it — kiddie’s big school recital! Cue the canned audience ohhhhhhing sadly as kiddie’s puppie-dog eyes go wide and her lip quivers. Dad’s gonna let her down again — that’s Dad for ya.

And Dad… oh, man. If Smith wanted to be taken seriously, he’d probably have been better off leaving Ben Affleck out of Jersey Girl, except for that one cameo that we’d all have been waiting for anyway, like how we wait and wait for Matt Damon and Jason Lee to show up for a scene and sure enough, there they are. I know Smith and Affleck (Paycheck, Gigli) have a past, but surely a dear friend is the one you’d trust to take you aside and gently — gently — break the news to you that, you know, you’re just not leading-man material, like if you had B.O. or bad breath that everyone was talking about behind your back. Sure, it’d hurt to hear such news, but then at least you’d be able to rectify the problem and face the world fearlessly again.

But Affleck… it’s sad, and a little embarrassing, watching him, as Ollie Trinke, Sitcom Dad, emoting over his dead wife, sobbing and getting all choked up in that manly reticent way. He plays the scene like he’s, you know, overcome by something terribly sad but as if he’s running through a checklist on How To Play the Grief Scene. And I won’t even go into how the dead wife is played, in the film’s early scenes, by Jennifer Lopez (Maid in Manhattan, Enough) while they were still all big ugly pink diamonds and kissy-face. So you’d imagine it wouldn’t have been too difficult for Affleck to get upset at the thought of her dead. Now may be a different matter, but that was then.

So Ben is stuck with moppet Gertie (Raquel Castro), too precious for words, for whom he has given up his high-powered career in public relations. He treats the dad thing as a long-term child-minding position, and hardly as “parenting” at all. (I’d say Smith should have called this Adventures in Babysitting, but hell, Adventures in Babysitting had more attitude than this.) But of course the kid turns out all right anyway, living with the bitter, lonely, horny dad and the alcoholic grandfather (George Carlin) cuz this is meant to be a comedy, not that it’s actually funny or anything.

And it’s actually bizarre in places, and not intentionally so, and not in any particularly interesting way where you go, Oh, okay, Smith was going for something here — didn’t work, but he tried. No. There’s a whole subplot about Ollie trying to get back into the PR game after years of working as, yes, a sanitation worker in suburban Jersey, but that’s not the weird thing. This is: Smith seems to have some strange idea that Ollie getting his PR mojo back is a good thing, that there’s some sort of redemptive power in the magic of smooth bullshit.

But that’s nothing to the post-holocaust scene in Central Park. Ollie takes Gertie into the city, to show her the places he loves so much, and it’s like the park has been hit by a neutron bomb: there’s nobody around. It’s a beautiful, sunny day, but there’s not another soul to be seen. Then Ollie takes Gertie on a romantic-daddy ride in what is apparently the only horse-drawn carriage in Central Park. (New Yorkers know the park is actually lousy with the carriages.)

Maybe there are nuclear-mutated zombie beasts roaming the city outside the park, and some other dad is struggling with the challenges of raising his daughter in that environment. That’s the kind of story I’d have figured on coming from a grown-up Smith.

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