People have come to expect the unexpected with writer/director Kevin Smith, whose legacy on American popular culture is massive. As an artist, he has changed how movies are made, promoted and seen by the general public. Throughout his career Smith has equally sashayed between genres. He has penned and lensed his own films. He has written and edited comic books, while also owning his own comic book store, Jay & Silent Bob’s Secret Stash.
Smith's films are wholeheartedly embraced by geekdom. As a writer/director, Kevin Smith is the man who rewrote the date film (Chasing Amy), took on the Catholic Church (Dogma) and reinvented the independent film (with his debut Clerks and its subsequent sequels). With this in mind, it is interesting that Smith has chosen his latest project, Jersey Girl, to completely turn the tables of perception of him as a filmmaker.
Jersey Girl centers on Ollie Trinke (Ben Affleck), a powerful mid-nineties mover and shaker. He’s a music publisher who is at the top of his game. Trinke has everything, a great job, a beautiful wife and a great Manhattan apartment, complete with all the hipster amenities anyone could want. His reputation precedes him as the man who makes things happen. He’s flashy, extravagant, hard-working and determined. Ollie always calls the shots and runs the show. He’s a man on the make, setting the music industry on its ear.
Destiny however, has other plans. Ollie’s life and career are put on hold when Ollie’s wife Gertrude (Jennifer Lopez) dies, leaving him to look after his daughter, Gertie (precocious newcomer Racquel Castro).
Ollie is apoplectic. Having no clear idea of how to care for a child, he turns to his father, Bart for help. Devastated and beset by grief, Ollie moves back to New Jersey to reorganize his life. Despite living in the Garden State, Ollie insists on maintaining his on-the-go Manhattan lifestyle. Eventually his role as a father shrinks towards nothingness. This is where Bart steps in, causing their relationship to come to a head.
Bart is a tired, grumpy and altogether cantankerous man who simply wants a beer and some peace and quiet and the end of the day. Although sympathetic, the intrusion of his son and granddaughter into his docile world is not necessarily welcome. Despite helping Ollie cope with Gertrude’s death, he feels taken advantage of. Eventually, Bart puts his foot down, insisting that Ollie take a wider role in raising Gertie. The ensuing battle between father and son twists the plot of “Jersey Girl into completely unexpected directions.
Affleck’s reuniting with Kevin Smith is a great career move. After all, Smith helped make Ben Affleck a bankable star. Smith has written parts for him in the past, and has done so again, penning Jersey Girl with him specifically in mind. His performance here alternates from smug and cocky to confident, brash, and selfish without difficulty. He also is convincing as a grieving widower; lost, misanthropic and discouraged. There are moments in Jersey Girl when he embodies sadness and misery. Affleck plays Ollie as a man, searching for himself around many corners. On the whole, Ben Affleck’s dramatics in Jersey Girl will thankfully render moviegoers amnesiac of his two most recent filmed disasters, Gigli and Paycheck.
George Carlin plays Ollie’s gruff father, Bart Trinke, as a sarcastic old bastard who willingly puts his own job on hold to assist with raising Gertie. Carlin, the comedic catalyst for the film, has many of the movie’s best lines, while breathing life into Jersey Girl’s tenser moments.
Bart Trinke is Ollie’s main antagonist. Theirs is a volatile but affectionate relationship that really works well on film. As clashes proceed between the prodigal son and the instigator Dad, we see Smith’s fabric weaving the tension between them. Smith shrewdly sets Ollie on the road to redemption by having Bart force his son to examine his life and his priorities.
If Bart is the catalyst for Ollie’s transformation, then Maya (Liv Tyler) is the reason it to comes full circle. Maya, a local video store clerk, is whip smart, funny and smitten with Ollie. Her patience and understanding stabilizes Ollie. She also has a profoundly motherly influence on Gertie, inevitably winning her over to her side.
Although his role is teeny-tiny, Arthur Brickman, (Jason Biggs) is a prolific figure in Ollie Trinke’s life. He adds subtle balance to his mentor’s out of control antics. Arthur interacts with Ollie before and after his life changes.
Racquel Castro (Gertie) wasn’t even born when Kevin Smith began to work on films. Nonetheless, this ten-year-old steals the film. Castro gives Gertie a seamless emotional range. She is going to blossom into a fine young actress.
Jersey Girl is a remarkably tender and positive film. Gone are the gross jokes, flashy jargon and excessive expletives prevalent in almost all of Smith’s other films. Kevin Smith seems to have moved on, growing into a director who gets what he wants from his performers. Jersey Girl, may alarm some of his devoted fan base because it so transcends everything else that he has done previously. Smith dodges and maneuvers around a wide range of emotions, creating a work of staggering depth.
It is quite obvious that Jersey Girl is an extremely personal one for Kevin Smith. He has toiled, nitpicked and obsessed over it for some time now, never relenting to make the film he wanted it to be. Thankfully, he has succeeded in creating a film that really gets to the heart of what it means to discover yourself, your family and your life.