Through the film, I kept thinking "This is really good... why are certain people talking bad about it? It's heartfelt, it's charming... I just don't get it." Then, as the credits were rolling and I was wiping the last of the third set of tears from my eyes (Thanks, Kev, for making me feel like a big dork crying in public), I heard this rather young woman, maybe a sophomore in college, say "That was dumb. It's not like he was being entirely selfish. What's wrong with wanting a good job in the city so he could have his old life back?" As I sat their gaping, my wife said "Oh my god. She SO doesn't get it."
There's the issue. This is a film about real life. If you've never been out on your own, never had to really deal with the balance of life & career, never had to balance your own desires with what is best for the person (or persons) you love more than yourself... you're not going to get this film. Thus, satisfied that I understood why people could possibly have bad things to say about Jersey Girl, the latest offering from writer/director Kevin Smith, I came home and sat down to write this review.
Charming really is the word I would use to describe this film. Smith is demonstrating that he can write "real" as well as "fantasy," although some would argue that no one goes to the theatre to see "real." I would disagree. This film was like looking at a slice of life lived by someone very similar to myself. Anyone who grew up with a working-class parent and longed to grow beyond their roots will deeply feel this tale. To watch the lead character interact with his on-screen father is to remember my life with my own, fondly and with greater respect and awe for his patience and love.
Ben Affleck plays Oliver Trinke, a high-speed publicist specializing in music. After a cataclysmic event in his life, he undergoes a shift and moves back to the Highlands in New Jersey, to live with his father and concentrate on raising his daughter. Affleck's performance is truly one of his best to date. His range is impressive. There were three scenes in the film that made me cry, and one of his was the first. The scene where he delivers a truly heartfelt confessional monologue to his infant daughter brought undesired tears welling to my eyes.
Raquel Castro plays Gertie Trinke, a daughter far too much like Jennifer Lopez's Gertrude Steiney, combined with Affleck's personality and George Carlin's attitude. I tend to be rather curmudgeon-y when it comes to child actors, but Ms. Castro was earnest, and displayed both talent, humility, and restraint in her performance, something all-too-uncommon with younger actors. She also has an amazing voice for a young lady her age, and I look forward to seeing where her career takes her from here.
Liv Tyler plays Maya, the graduate student/video store clerk (you knew there had to be a video store in there somewhere, right?) who finds Ollie interesting enough to try to draft him into her research. This leads to a very funny scene that was, unfortunately, mostly spoiled by the trailers released to promote the film, but it was still enjoyable nonetheless. This becomes more of a general ensemble drama after Maya's introduction into Ollie & Gertie's lives, but that only enriches the film's appeal.
George Carlin's role as Bart Trinke is, however, the biggest surprise of the film, and delightfully so. Bart is the prototypical suburban working father, so much so that my wife turned to me and said "That's your Dad!" (My father was a maintenance electrician for the Ford Motor Company for many, many years, and in many ways, sounds just like the way Kevin wrote Ollie's dad.) But beyond that, this is George Carlin at his best. He's honest, he's acerbic, he's wise-cracking, but at no time do you question whether or not he cares about his son and granddaughter. The third teary-eyed event came from him near the end of the film, and caught me totally off-guard. (Thanks again, Kev, ) Carlin shows he has range as an actor, and is more than just a comedian-turned-actor. He is an actor in the truest sense of the word.
Honorable mention goes to Stephen Root, memorable as the "red stapler guy" from Office Space fame, who plays Bart's friend Greenie, and Mike Starr, who I know from NBC's Ed, who plays Bart's other friend Block. Although they don't have a lot of dialogue, if you know anyone like Bart, you know they always have one or two friends like that. My dad does, his name is Lin, and they've been friends for as long as I can remember. And their relationship is almost identical to that between Bart and Greenie. There were also great cameos from Jason Lee and Matt Damon, and from Will Smith, who has about the best cameo role I've ever seen in any film anywhere.
Technically, this film looks spectacular. Kevin is a great writer, but not (yet) a great overall film-maker. Bringing in Vilmos Zsigmond was the right choice, as this film is crisp, well-lit, and beautifully shot to enhance the actors' performances in just the right way. And the soundtrack... as we were leaving the theatre, my wife paused to watch the song list in the credits, and commented "Oh, and I _want_ this soundtrack!" This sentiment was echoed by several other people who heard her say it. The soundtrack has some wonderful music in it, and I'm hoping it will be released. If so, it will be added to my collection forthwith.
And now on to the big man himself. Kevin Smith is a writer I've enjoyed for many years. I enjoy him as a person (as much as I've seen in his television appearances and the Evening with Kevin Smith DVD) and I enjoy his writing. When I graduated with my Master's degree, my graduation present to myself was an autographed copy of Mallrats. I got to see a sneak preview of Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back and can't remember when I've laughed so hard. But this is, arguably, the most stirring and emotional film he's made yet, or at least tied with Chasing Amy. It's a radical departure from his other offerings, and I think it shows both great courage to go against the filmic grain as well as great integrity to say 'I want to do something different, I want to try something new, I want to grow and expand my horizons.' That's not an easy thing to do at any point in your life, but especially in one as public and confessional as Smith's has been. Bravo, Mr. Smith. Bravo.
Overall, I give this film an enthusiastic A. This is a sweet, sentimental romantic comedy that isn't as formulaic as I was led to believe, and serves as a great vehicle for the craft of acting, some damned witting writing, and a fabulous movie-going experience. And no, I'm not saying all of this just because I'm a Smith too.