Jersey Girl

Jersey Girl

My expectations weren’t super high for Jersey Girl, but I still came away from it disappointed.

From what I understand, this is Kevin Smith’s (Clerks) most mainstream film. So I figured it perhaps wouldn’t be as challenging, deep, quirky, thought-provoking, etc. as some of the independent films—including his own—I’ve gotten used to, but would still be a little meatier, a little edgier, a little more intriguing than the typical Hollywood fare. And wrapped up in a more polished, easier to swallow package than most of the indie films (just to combine as many mismatched metaphors as possible). So probably at least pretty decent.

The premise of Jersey Girl is that the Ben Affleck character unexpectedly has to raise his daughter alone when his wife dies in childbirth. Early on he’s stressed out by the parenting, and he blows up in public in a way that results in his losing his job—and indeed his career—as some sort of hot shot New York publicist. He moves in with his father (George Carlin) in New Jersey, eventually develops a love interest, and nurtures his relationship with his daughter, until after seven years he unexpectedly gets an opportunity to possibly restart his career as a publicist, depending on if he’s willing to pay the price of uprooting his daughter from the home environment she’s grown comfortable in, and going back to being a workaholic who realistically will have only limited time with her.

Unfortunately Smith seems not to have just made a few adjustments or compromises to his previous style as an independent filmmaker in order to go mainstream. Instead it’s like he abandoned all that and decided not just to make a conventional movie, but to make one so formulaic, so safe, so mediocre, so bland as almost to be a parody of a typical Hollywood film.

Really I’m not a tough audience for this film. Probably when I was younger I would have been inclined to laugh at a sappy movie like this and feel superior to anyone who let themselves enjoy it, but nowadays I’m very receptive to a “nice” story about human relationships and the joys of parenting and such. I’m ready to celebrate that stuff. A certain amount of sappy is fine with me.

But this one just rang hollow for me. I don’t know Ben Affleck from a hole in the ground; I’m very familiar with the name, but I don’t recall ever seeing a film with him in it. I guess he’s one of the big actors of his generation, but I was struck by how lame his performance is at times in this movie. Not that I’m any great judge of that, but there are scenes—I’m thinking of the scene where he breaks down in grief when his wife dies, for one—where I just wasn’t buying it. I was wincing watching him.

I also couldn’t really connect with the whole “conflict” part of the film, where he has to choose between focusing on parenting his daughter or resuming his career. If he were a great artist or a doctor or scientist or someone making some major contribution to the world through his work, then OK, but his “career” is being paid to lie and kiss the ass of celebrities and rich people. So for me, one choice is you get to be around this adorable little girl and devote yourself to making her happy and giving her a good life, and the other choice is an even more unpleasant than average rat race type job. Yeah, real tough call.

And even if you buy that it’s an interesting dilemma for him, due to the very nature of the film there’s zero doubt which choice he’ll ultimately make. Nor is there even any suspense about how he’ll manifest his doing so; the whole last scene is made obvious well in advance.

I initially felt better about the girl. She is cute, and I was definitely liking her. But then on too many occasions her lines and her behavior bear no resemblance to what a real little girl would say or do outside of “movie land.” There is even a certain phoniness to the father-daughter interaction at times. Affleck is given a lot of funny lines, some of which work and some of which don’t, and after each of them his daughter gives him an “Oh Daddy, you’re so silly!” sort of laugh. Unfortunately the bulk of these lines are little witticisms that would have no meaning to a seven year old, so her reaction, again, only makes sense in “movie land.”

There is stuff like that throughout the film that just isn’t believable. The girlfriend is cocky and flirtatiously aggressive in pushing Affleck to participate in her sex survey, and later announcing to him that they are going to sleep together, and my reaction initially was “OK, that’s sort of cute in a spunky kind of way; she’s got some charm to her,” but followed shortly thereafter by, “Except when I think about it, I can’t imagine a real person behaving the way she’s behaving.”

And the grade school play or whatever it is at the end has the level of production values and acting and elaborate sets that I would think most university drama programs would be very happy with. And on and on.

I want to make a comparison. I saw I Am Sam several years ago. It too is a “feel good” movie about a father and daughter relationship. It got mixed reviews, with some critics praising it, but a lot declaring it simplistic and sappy and manipulative.

Well, I liked I Am Sam quite a lot. I got caught up in the emotions of it. I thought Sean Penn—who is nearly always very, very good—and the little girl (Dakota Fanning) were utterly believable in their depiction of the loving bond between those two characters.

Jersey Girl could have been like that. Its “soft” subject matter and status as a mainstream movie didn’t prevent it from winning me over, because it shares those things with I Am Sam, a movie I found very likable.

But, judging from this performance at least, Ben Affleck isn’t on the same planet as Sean Penn as an actor. And though they’re both adorable in their way, Fanning runs rings around the girl in this movie. I thought Fanning displayed the acting skills of an adult; she held her own with Penn, which is pretty remarkable. I Am Sam didn’t have anywhere close to the number of phony moments as Jersey Girl. And though you clearly were supposed to be rooting for the retarded Penn to keep custody of his daughter, the movie was actually pretty honest in presenting the reasons that that would be a dubious outcome, so, for me at least, it was like it wanted to take you a certain way emotionally, but respected you enough to allow for a pretty significant “Yeah, but….” Jersey Girl didn’t have even that much complexity or ambiguity to it.

I certainly didn’t hate this movie. In its way, it’s actually a good kind of failure. When a movie fails because it’s trying to be a comedy and it’s just not funny, or it’s trying to be an action thriller and it’s boring and confusing, etc., well then it’s just not good for much. What we have with Jersey Girl is a “feel-good” movie that falls short of its goal, meaning it’s not as “feel-good” as it wants to be. But there are a lot worse ways to spend an hour and forty minutes than “feeling good but less good than intended.” It’s a pleasant little offering, and while I’d rank it near the bottom of the films I’ve written about so far in terms of my opinion of how good or bad it is as a movie, if we ask instead how willing I’d be to sit and watch it again, I’d rank it closer to the middle.

So I don’t know that it’s one I’d steer people away from. I could see some people liking this movie a lot more than I did.

The other point I wanted to be sure to make about this film is that George Carlin is really good. Granted the part of a somewhat curmudgeonly wise-cracking old guy with a heart of gold isn’t a big stretch from his stand-up persona, but I thought he really nailed his character. He was the one exception that I thought was believable and likable whenever he was on screen. It makes me wonder why acting wasn’t a bigger part of his career.

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