40×40: Jersey Girl (2004)

Written and directed by Kevin Smith.

“I’m not really a whoremonger, dad.”

Why Did I Get This?

I’ve been a fan of Kevin Smith’s work for a long time, pretty much since seeing Mallrats at just the right age, then getting swept up in that whole ‘young, enthusiastic filmmaker creates fun movies for next to nothing’ wave (as previously seen here).

That being said, with the exception of Red State I’ve rarely revisited many of his movies as I’ve got older, particularly the View Askewniverse stuff. I fond memories of laughing like a drain at them in my youth, but I’m sure elements of them haven’t aged well – indeed, I’ve been looking at another Kevin Smith-related piece for a future Quick Read and found some of his humour lands really badly in 2022.

However, I think he’s generally a decent guy, a hugely entertaining raconteur (his weed-infused podcasts are less well-polished than his Audience With… shows, but occasionally great fun), and his career trajectory has been really interesting to watch.

He also wrote two parts of a planned trilogy of Batman graphic novels which were a good read, but ended on a cliffhanger which hasn’t been resolved in years – sort it out, Kev.

Anyway, I remember being curious about Jersey Girl which Smith wrote after becoming a father and was intended as a move away from his Jay & Silent Bob comedies. Yes, he was maturing, and trying to reflect that in his work, but I remember very little about seeing it back in the day.

What I do remember is how critically destroyed it was on release, and thinking that was probably due to the whole Ben Affleck/Jennifer Lopez romance, and the release (the same year), of Gigli which I have never seen but understand is dreadful.

Did Jersey Girl suffer solely because of its links to their romance and another bad film? Well, I guess I’ll find out…

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review will include details from throughout the film which could be considered spoilers. If you want to avoid them, scroll down to the next heading.

Jersey Girl tells the story of Ollie Trinke (Ben Affleck), a successful New York publicist whose beloved wife Gertrude (Jennifer Lopez), dies giving birth to their daughter. Ollie moves in with his father (George Carlin), across the river in New Jersey for support with the baby, but after a spectacular meltdown in front of the music press, loses his job in the city. Years later, he has found work as a civil servant alongside his father in Jersey, but still aspires to return to his high-powered job in New York, without thinking what that could mean for his relationships with his daughter Gertie (Raquel Castro), and local video store worker Maya (Liv Tyler).

It could be considered weird that this film – a movie Kevin Smith wrote in an effort to show how he had matured as a man and as a filmmaker and distance himself from the sillier movies – opens with an animated Jay and Silent Bob logo to mark a decade of his View Askewniverse.

That being said, although he’s working outside his usual comfort zone of dick and fart gags, weed smokers and loveable good-for-nothing slackers, he still leans heavily on some of his familiar tropes – there’s Chasing Amy’s Ben Affleck as the lead, a worldly video store clerk who is free and open in talking about sexuality (played by Liv Tyler), and a snarky, quick-witted script filled with pop culture references.

In voiceover, seven-year-old Gertie tells the audience her dad splits life into two categories; New Jersey and New York. The film itself though gets split into three distinct sections – Bennifer (a term coined by Smith referring to Affleck and Lopez as a couple), Baby (Affleck and a newborn), and Gertie Age Seven (the movie’s only title card, which pops up a little way in).

For the Bennifer section, we get to meet Ollie and see him schmoozing with high-class colleagues and living the fabulous New Yorker lifestyle we’ve come to associate with success in the movies. He and Gertrude fall quickly in love, get married, she gets pregnant, they have an over-dramatic argument as he tries to rush her out the door to the MTV Video Music Awards, then she dies moments after giving birth to their daughter.

This section was apparently shortened after poor critical response to Gigli (a film I have a morbid curiosity to watch, but one which I have so far managed to avoid completely), so it’s really doing a lot in a short space of time.

Lopez is absolutely lovely as Gertrude, bristling with confidence, intelligence, and – aside from the tearful argument before the awards show when she says she wants to be a “coked-up whore” like the rest of the guests – a strong female character. She holds her own with George Carlin’s Bart on their first meeting, and it feels cruel to fridge her as soon as the baby is born (though, in fairness, it does help move the story along).

Affleck works fairly well here too, delivering some incredibly Kevin Smith dialogue as a music PR monster, including “George Michael is a pimp who is all about the ladies”, and dictating a press release about the latest Madonna video to his assistant Arthur (a sweet Jason Biggs), causing him to ask…

“Hey, can I use the word ‘labia’ in a press release?”

(For the record, I’ve read and written a lot of press releases in my time, and I’ve never seen one containing the word ‘labia’.)

His relationship with his dad is fairly by the book too – gruff Bart is a manual labourer for the New Jersey local authority living in a large but dilapidated family house, while slick Ollie lives in a slick apartment in the city, works in a slick office in a skyscraper, and basically loves the old guy, but somehow thinks he’s better than all that.

Throughout this section of the film, Affleck’s attempts at Very Serious Acting or emoting seem to involve delivering his lines while exhaling and half-closing his eyes. He can be very good, and indeed is much better later in the film, but this was weird to see.

In his defence, his sense of hopelessness and panic as Gertrude dies just after the baby is delivered feels very real (even if Lopez’s performance basically sees her roll her eyes then slump to one side), and his breakdown while smoking in the hospital corridor as the doctor explains what happened is good too.

However, it’s assisted – or more accurately hammered home – thanks to a subtle camera dolly and Smith’s choice of an Aimee Mann song on the soundtrack, which then plays over the funeral and Ollie and baby Gertie moving into Bart’s home.

If you aren’t sure how you are supposed to feel at any point during this film, don’t worry, Kev’s got you covered, because the soundtrack will take over and make it very clear indeed. It’s funny, because Smith is usually happiest when he’s writing clever and funny things for his characters to say, but on occasions during the film, their words are basically pantomimed in montage while a sad/uplifting song plays extraneously, then we cut to the next scene where they pretty much tell you how sad/great they feel after what just happened.

Anyway, on to the Two Men & A Baby section of the film…

Here we get the ‘fancy city boy is out of his depth dealing with a baby’ section of the film, and while it feels mean to say it’s a cliched roll-out of first-time dad stereotypes… it sort of is.

In fairness, he’s not just a first-time dad, but a first-time dad who is trying to bury himself in his work to avoid acknowledging he’s lost the love of his life and doesn’t know how to raise a child. Ollie is distraught by the loss of Gertrude, and moving back in with Bart offers some sense of normality – except it doesn’t. It offers Ollie free babysitting while he tries to be the person he was a few months earlier.

Ollie goes back to work too early, gets increasingly stressed by the baffling rise of Will Smith as an up-and-coming movie star (this section of the film is set a few months before Independence Day catapulted Smith from Fresh Prince to Box Office draw – and many years before he raised a hand to Chris Rock in anger at the Oscars), with Ollie snorting…

“Like the Fresh Prince is ever gonna have a movie career.”

But after ignoring baby Gertie’s cries for too long, Bart leaves for work on the morning of Ollie’s big Will Smith event telling him to act like a father – it’s a cartoony argument, carried out while Affleck is walking alongside Carlin’s street cleaning vehicle, but leads to a high-pressure situation as he’s forced to take a crying baby to the launch of a memorabilia auction in front of the most powerful media press in New York.

One shitty nappy, a talcum powder/cocaine joke and several insults aimed at the Fresh Prince and the assembled media later, and Ollie’s out of a job and sent packing to New Jersey for good.

The close of this section sees Carlin sitting at the top of the stairs listening to Affleck give an impassioned speech to his baby daughter about how much she and her mother mean to him, what it means to be a father, and how he’ll do his best. We get genuine tears from Affleck, and it’s the best he’s been in the film so far, even getting a nod of approval from Carlin as he listens in – admittedly, once he picks up the baby and continues the speech, it feels a little less genuine, and you can hear Smith’s script rather than see a performance, but it’s still pretty sweet.

Incidentally, my notes for this section include “George Carlin would be an ace grandad”, and I stand by that.

After the title card, we see the now seven-year-old Gertie running out of school to meet her dad – if we were in any doubt that Ollie has changed, he’s ditched the hair gel, he’s wearing heavy-duty work wear, and he’s driving the street sweeper (which, in a neat bit of foreshadowing, he and Gertie call The Batmobile!).

He looks healthier, happier, young and very in-shape, then after a Star Wars reference (“Punch it, Chewie”), and one of my favourite gags from the film (“Cats is the second worst thing to happen to New York City”), we find out he’s got an interview in New York.

The interviewers are Jason Lee and Matt Damon – both Kevin Smith alumni, and the latter obviously an old mate of Affleck’s and Oscar-sharer – who have brought him in for the chance to meet the guy who passed on Will Smith and ruined his career. Yes, Ollie is a laughing stock in the city, but still determined to get back into his old life and viewing New Jersey and family life with Gertie as a pitstop along the way.

When he returns home, he finds Gertie in her room with a boy called Brian, innocently showing each other their bits and confused about the difference. What follows is a sitcom-esque sit down when Ollie asks Brian what his intentions are for his daughter, before dismissing him and telling him to come back with a ring. We then get a fun, self-deprecating gag about the size of Affleck’s wang, before a visit to the local video store, because it’s a Kevin Smith movie.

Here’s where we meet Liv Tyler’s Maya – essentially the smartest person in the room, who is completely open in talking about sex, it’s hard to imagine her role being written by anyone but Smith. She instantly takes a shine to Ollie by embarrassing him in front of Gertie as he accidentally tries to rent a bisexual porno tape, then feels so bad when she finds out about his dead wife she breaks every GDPR rule in the book and visits him at his home after hours.

I like Tyler, and her performance is good, even as she’s rolling out huge chunks of dialogue using language only ever heard in Kevin Smith movies. She’s not quite Randall in Clerks, not quite Becky in Clerks II, but feels a little like each of them, and has an easy chemistry with Affleck and the young Castro which helps you buy into the character and relationships, even when she’s revealing how many times a day she masturbates.

Her decision to offer Ollie a “mercy jump” when she discovers he hasn’t had sex in seven years is another one of those ‘men write fantasy women’ wish fulfilment roles, and presents her as a strong character, but only insofar as she knows what men need and is happy to offer it, stating herself that despite crushing a little on Ollie, she’s just doing him a favour.

This leads to a nice gag when the couple are caught in the shower by Gertie, following a nicely crafted toilet-flushing setup that’s been running throughout this section, followed by a lovely mirroring of the ‘what are your intentions’ scene with Gertie taking the lead and Affleck giving a nice, goofy performance to get through the conversation.

Since he hasn’t allowed her to go see Cats, Ollie takes Gertie to see Sweeney Todd, and is surprised by the violence on show – I’m not sure how that would even happen, surely if you’re going to see Sweeney Todd, you know it’s about a murderous barber?

We see more evidence of New Jersey life growing on Ollie, with more visits to the video store (where there are a lot of Miramax titles on display), and a blossoming friendship with Maya, and he throws himself into his work – speaking to an angry public meeting about necessary roadworks in the town.

Well, kinda – the whole speech is buried under a song to let us know Ollie is feeling brilliant about his new role.

This leads us up to the final act of the film, as Gertie decides to perform a song from Sweeney Todd at the school show which, of course, is due to take place at the same time Ollie is due to have a meeting at a PR firm in the city about a potential job.

He’ll never be able to make both… or will he?

The story beats are telegraphed well enough in advance, so you know there’ll be a mad dash through traffic to make it back from New York on time, but we also get a good reason for Ollie abandoning the meeting – a chance meeting with Big Willie himself as they wait to meet their publicists.

While most of this film is formulaic and by-the-book, watching Will Smith and Ben Affleck share jokes and stories about their kids felt really sweet and largely genuine. You can tell Kevin Smith is pouring a lot of love into this dialogue, and it’s beautifully played by both performers. Apparently, an earlier draft had Bruce Willis in the Will Smith role (this was well before he and Smith parted ways, professionally, and a while before he appeared in this Late Review), and I find it difficult to imagine he’d have brought the warmth to the role that the Fresh Prince found.

Of course, it all wraps up exactly as you’d expect. Ollie realises he’s “just a guy who’d rather play in the dirt with his kid”, than be working all hours in the city, chooses to ditch the important meeting and join Gertie, Bart and Bart’s mates (a grumpy Mike Starr and daft Stephen Root), in their performance of God That’s Good from Sweeney Todd, before slow-dancing with Maya in his dad’s favourite bar and telling Gertie she’s the only thing he’s ever been good at.

Lights go down, Springsteen sings over the credits, and we’re done.

Verdict

Harmless, sentimental fun, and worth a revisit if you haven’t seen it since 2004. It might not change your mind, but it’s probably not as bad as you’ve been led to believe.

I like a lot of Kevin Smith’s work, but like him, I’m well aware of what it is (a fun time at the movies), and what it isn’t (high art – well, some of his stuff involves ‘high’ art, but you know what I mean).

Directorially, it’s nothing special, but that’s not what you come to a Kevin Smith film for. However, while some of the shot/reverse-shot conversation choices are a little flat, you do get the occasional show of flair – the dolly shot down the hospital corridor as Ollie hears about his wife’s death, some urgent handheld shots as he rushes with baby Gertie into his media event, and a beautiful, dizzying camera move down from a New York skyscraper down to street level as he strides in for a job interview.

While the reliance on music might be manipulative, it performs its task well and while you might roll your eyes as Ollie’s speech is buried under a musical montage, but by crikey, you’ll feel uplifted.

Performance-wise too, I didn’t think it was anywhere near as bad as its reputation suggests. While Affleck’s spiteful argument with Gertie in the third act is a little much, his double-take as Will Smith sits next to him in a waiting room is delightful, as is his rictus-grinned “shit” at the end of the school performance.

Kids in movies can easily veer towards being annoying, but Racquel Castro manages to be cute, smart and just on the right side of that. Elsewhere, Tyler commits to the male-fantasy role while still bringing a confident femininity to her performance, Jason Biggs is sweet and genuine, and Carlin, basically, gives good Carlin.

Yes, it’s predictable. Yes, it’s manipulative. Yes, it’s sentimental. But does that make it a bad film, or worth the kicking it got on release?

I dunno. It’s certainly not perfect, but it feels to me like if it’d been released a year earlier, it could have had a kinder welcome. It’s probably the only Kevin Smith film other than Red State that I’d recommend to my parents or those who write him off as making silly movies that reference Star Wars and stinkpalms.

One of the things Smith fans love him for is his ability with words, his smart-arsed gags, pop culture references and ability to find heart in places you might not expect.

If there’s one thing Jersey Girl has, it’s heart.

This really feels like a writer making use of his role to shout about just how much he loves his baby girl (Smith’s daughter turned five the year this was released), and while the plot may rely on the occasional cliché, it’s a perfectly fine way to spend 90-odd minutes.

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