Kevin Smith is out to manipulate your feelings. Jersey Girl, his latest film with muse Ben Affleck, is a shameless exercise in melodrama. The story is sweet and likeable; no one will hate the movie. The problem is that Smith stuffs the plot with sappy, predictable emotional moments. At first it's quite sad and effective, genuine drama, which simply deteriorates into a Lifetime original movie of the week. Smith's characters cry on cue. It's as if there's a crying moment written in every ten pages of the script. No one will ever accuse Ben Affleck of not being a sensitive guy after seeing Jersey Girl.
The story kicks off in the mid-90's with Affleck as Public Relations guru Ollie Trinke. He's the master spinner in the PR world, the kind of guy that could sell a TV to a blind man. Ollie loves his hip Manhattan lifestyle. Life gets much better when he falls in love with another swinging New Yorker, Gertrude Steiney (Jennifer Lopez). They have a two-minute love affair, done montage-style, and are married so quickly; the butter on your popcorn will still be warm. Gertrude gets pregnant and Ollie has trouble balancing work with his new responsibilities as a father-to-be. His world shatters around him when Gertrude dies of an aneurysm during childbirth. Now he's heartbroken and left to care for his infant baby girl.
Ollie takes little Gerty, named after her mother, and moves to Highland, New Jersey. His father Bart (George Carlin) is a worker for the city. Ollie needs his help taking care of the baby while he figures out what to do next. Soon Bart is sick of Ollie shirking his responsibilities as a father. He refuses to take care of the baby on the most important day of Ollie's career. He's forced to take the baby to work and of course, it ends in disaster. Ollie is fired and his New York life is inexorably gone. He dedicates himself utterly to raising his daughter and takes a job working with his father.
The story jumps in time to when Gerty is seven. The entire precursor to the story, which is a lot of exposition, is told in the first ten minutes of the film. Raquel Castro, the young actress that plays Gerty, is a spitting image of Jennifer Lopez. Kevin Smith cast the part perfectly; he just made her too sweet and precocious. Its like little orphan Annie is running around in Jersey Girl. The film descends into rote predictability at this point. That's disappointing because you expect much more after the emotional build-up. It plays out like a TV movie, entirely too saccharine and conventional.
Kevin Smith claims his foremost skill is as a writer. He acknowledges his shortcomings as a visual director and puts the emphasis on the tangible qualities of his characters. Jersey Girl is flawed not because of the believability of his characters, but their cookie-cutter responses to life changing moments. Every character in the film does the right thing. They do what they're supposed to do in a perfect world. You can't have it both ways. The characters cannot be constructed as real people in every day situations, then never make a mistake. Ollie, who has all the turmoil of being a single lonely father, makes the decisions of someone stuck in a fairy tale. Smith paints his world black and white when it is invariably gray. He makes this move and everyone is happy. He makes the other move and everyone is depressed forever. It's not plausible in the situation that Kevin Smith uses as the film's climax. There are a great many things Ollie could have done at that point. It's disappointing that Smith takes the easy way out and undercuts the complexity of his characters with that decision.
The performances are good enough. The actors are not the problem in the film, the writing is. They do what they're supposed to do and that makes them likeable. Affleck and Smith have done a few movies together, so they know how to work with each other. Another actor might not have picked up Smith's material as easily. Smith's writing is wordy and self-deprecating, Affleck understands this and conveys it on screen. Much of the film's humor is the result of Affleck fleshing out the dialogue in a believable manner. To his credit, he does the same in the weepier moments also. The problem is that those parts are overused and quickly become boring.
Kevin Smith dedicates Jersey Girl to his late father. This is probably why the film is so emotional. The hallmark of all Smith films is his irreverent humor. This is nonexistent in Jersey Girl. It is entirely conventional and his most unoriginal work so far. Jersey Girl works best as a date film. It will illicit tears, a few chuckles, and not much else. Kevin Smith is better than this and hopefully his next effort will prove it.