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:DVD Review

Jersey Girl (DVD Review)
Dan Schneider 

Ben Affleck can act? Strike the question mark- Ben Affleck can act! In the first film I ever saw him in, Chasing Amy, by Kevin Smith, I had no doubt. Then, I saw every film he’s made since, and I assumed that Chasing Amy was the exception. Having heard the reviews, last year, of the latest Smith-Affleck film, Jersey Girl, I figured it was on par with the execrable Dogma, or the other film that starred the Bennifer combo of Affleck and Jennifer Lopez- Gigli, which has already become one of Hollywood’s legendary bombs.

I was wrong. Jersey Girl is a very good film, Smith’s best since Chasing Amy, and thankfully void of the increasingly grating Jay and Silent Bob comedy team. It’s definitely a formula ‘feel good’ family film, but not a tearjerker, and so well made it rises above formula to classical levels, and thus more closely like My Dog Skip or October Sky than a ‘Kevin Smith film’, which is why I think it was so critically savaged. That, the whole Affleck-Lopez bullshit, and the marketing campaign which made it seem like an Affleck-Liv Tyler romance, where it’s really a father-daughter tale more akin to the excellent High Grant film, About A Boy, of a few years back. One would think studio execs would have learned to not mismarket a film after the masterful psychodrama Eyes Wide Shut was marketed as a ‘sexy thriller’, or The Good Girl as a light comedy.

The film starts off recounting the marriage of Oliver and Gertrude Trinke (Affleck and Lopez) in a short montage that smartly captures the marriage at intimate moments. Then, Gertrude dies in childbirth, of an aneurysm, fifteen minutes into the film, and Oliver moves back in with his father Pop (George Carlin). Within a month Oliver loses his job when, while dealing with his baby daughter, he badmouths actor Will Smith, whom his publicity firm handles. Flash forward six years and little Gertie (Raquel Castro) is now the apple of Ollie’s eye. He works in the public works department of a small New Jersey town, Highlands, with Pop, but dreams of getting back in the Manhattan action.

Along the way Ollie meets up with Maya (Liv Tyler), a video store clerk, and the two have a sweet, old-fashioned romance, where things are implied, never explicit. Tyler shows real acting chops for she is not ‘Hollywood gorgeous’ nor thin, and never overacts. When Ollie’s old underling (Jason Biggs) lands him an interview tensions rise between him, Gertie, Pop, and Liv over moving back to New York. But, sitting in the waiting room, for his interview, in conflict with Gertie’s school music piece, Ollie bumps into the actor Will Smith and they have a well-written conversation that is very realistic, given the scene, which could have easily devolved into a confrontation over Ollie’s diss, years earlier. This is when the lone cliché kicks in, like in Chasing Amy. In the former film it was the kiss in the rain scene, while in Jersey Girl it’s a late scene where Affleck rushes back from a job interview to star in his daughter’s musical performance. Yet, even that is mitigated by the fact that the musical scene is the throat-slitting scene from Sweeney Todd, and the rest of the film is so chock full of well written scenes before and after- like when Pop admits to a fear of dying alone, that the lone feint into cliché is forgivable. The writing is so good that this trite scene actually gets one to believe it could happen- and want that it should happen.

Smith shows that his writing chops have finally matured and I’m shocked this film was not nominated for best screenplay, for, as a writer, I especially appreciate the risks such an endeavor takes. He really reinvents a genre piece and shows that genre, when done well, becomes merely classical for, and this film is done exceedingly well. It is really a tale of expectations and reality, loss and ambition, and Smith shows that he could be the inheritor of the mantel Woody Allen wore as a great seriocomic filmmaker. In the hands of a lesser director this film could have kamikazed two ways- it could have been a clichéd romance with Gertie’s having to cope with a dread stepmom, or it could have been a showcase for a bumbling dad and his wiseass kid, replete with cutesy tearjerker moments. By refraining these two urges, and the realistic dialogue, the film transcends its genre.

There are many moments that resonate: early on when older Gertie is fretting over her weight during pregnancy, before an awards show, Ollie reassures her, pushing her out the door, until Gertie demands ‘just’ two more minutes, or Ollie’s and Maya’s first meeting at the video store, when he’s looking to rent porno with his daughter’s kid flick, among others. And George Carlin shows he also has acting chops. He’s a grandpa any kid would dream of. Liv Tyler can act, too, as her eyes belie the things her character says, in trying not to impose her desires into the father-daughter relationship.

Smith has always been a very erratic director- either good (Clerks, Chasing Amy, Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back) or bad (Mallrats, Dogma), but this film, hopefully, will be for him what Annie Hall was for Woody Allen- the ushering in of a new phase of maturity that heralds a personal golden age. This truly is a good family film that shows good writing can trump a lack of sex or violence without dumbing things down to Disney level vomitus, or tacking on a specious moral at the end.

As for the rest of the DVD? The commentaries are nothing special, as Smith and Affleck, then Smith and Jason Mewes, who played Jay in earlier Smith films, basically ramble with no relation to what is appearing onscreen- the typical commentary fellatio. There are some funny moments from The Tonight Show, where Smith does Roadside Attractions segments, an interview with Smith and Affleck that is a bit more revealing than the commentaries. The film transfer is standard, but clean, and the film’s soundtrack resonates well.

But, this film is so good that even mediocrity in the technical aspects of the DVD could not forestall a recommendation. The ultimate one can hope for from a film is excellence and novelty. Too often you get neither. That Jersey Girl only has one should not be seen as a demerit, but a booster of its worth. See this film, and be ready to toss your preconceptions of the genre, and its participants. Hmm….maybe it is novel, after all.
© Dan Schneider Oct 2005
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