Kevin Smith has gained legions upon legions of fans, myself included, since his breakthrough debut film Clerks hit the RST Video stores (amongst others) of the country in the mid-90s. And while the critics go back and forth in praise of his work (they disliked Mallrats, loved Chasing Amy and Dogma, but disliked Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back), his fans still remain loyal to the New Jersey filmmaker. But Smith fans are in for something a little different with Jersey Girl. This is the first of the Smith movies to not feature the wonderful duo of Jay and Silent Bob, and this is more of a straight-up drama than any of his other flicks were. But this is still a very good movie, and it shows us that Smith can do more than bong hits and boo-boo-kitty-f**k's.
The movie is about Jersey-native-gone-big-time Ollie Trinke (Affleck). He has everything a man could possibly want. A super-cool, high-paying job as a publicist in Manhattan, a beautiful wife (Lopez), and a kid on the way....ok, maybe every man doesn't want a kid, myself included, but Trinke is psyched about it, so yeah. So everything is going good, until Ollie's wife dies while giving birth to their daughter (Castro). So, after he loses his job, in hilarious fashion, might I add, he's forced to move back in with his cranky dad (Carlin) and figure out how to be a dad, how to handle a forward video store clerk (Tyler), and how to get his old life back.
Basically all of Smith's movies are set either totally or partially in New Jersey, particularly his hometown of Red Bank. And we assume that most of his films either have characters that are based on people he knew, or situations that he was in or around...except for Dogma, I hope... But Jersey Girl feels like his most personal movie to date, because it is loosely based on his experiences as a new father. There are also fewer of Smith's trademark's that we've come to love. There is only one Star Wars reference ("Punch it Chewy"), compared to the zillions of references in his other movies, and there is a lot less humor. The humor here is very good, and in total Smith style, but there is just a lot less of it than we're used to. Now, I am a enormous fan of all of Smith's movies, and while it was a little sad not to see all of these things we're used to from Smith, it was nice to see something different. And if he pulls off his next project, the comic-book adaptation of The Green Hornet, his first action movie, it will totally prove that Smith can just simply do it all. And I'm more than convinced now that he can.
The acting here is pretty good, with some surprising performances. I've never been an insanely huge fan of Ben Affleck. He is usually wonderful in supporting performances (See: Boiler Room), but when he gets the lead, many times he falters (See: Changing Lanes, Gigli). But this is the type of role that Affleck can shine in (See: Chasing Amy), and he gives a very nice performance as Ollie Trinke. He shows some nice range here, that's usually hidden by his penchant for ad-libbing. Rent any of his movies and look for when he gives this little smirk like he knows something you don't. That's when, I think, he's ad-libbing. Anyway, it looked like Smith cracked down on his ad-libbing, because you never see it here, and it definitely helped his performance. Affleck is usually at his best when directed by Smith, and this is just another prime example because Affleck turns in a very solid performance here.
And in another surprising performance, longtime funnyman George Carlin gives a great performance as Ollie's dad, Bart. This is his biggest role ever in a movie, and he makes the most out of it. Sometimes, he does revert back to his sitcom days, going a little too far over the top, but it doesn't happen too often. He shows more range than we've ever seen from him before, and he does it very nicely.
But the show is stolen by Raquel Castro, making her feature-film debut, as Ollie's daughter, Gertie. The bright-eyed kid is the next Dakota Fanning, folks. She lights up the screen, and can act incredibly well for a 7-year-old who has never acted before. She has some great chemistry for Affleck, even acting better than Affleck sometimes. I would expect some big big things from Castro, after this marvelous film debut.
The one performance that didn't surprise me, was Liv Tyler's. I've never really liked her that much, and her performance here as the somewhat bi-polar video clerk Maya didn't do much to reverse my opinion. She wasn't really that bad here, vibing well sometimes with Affleck, but something about her just bugs me. Jason Biggs isn't that bad here either, as Ollie's former protoge Arthur, but he's not that great either.
The script here has some wonderful dialogue, a nice plot, and some great humor, especially in mirroring scenes where Ollie lectures a boy with Gertie, and Gertie does the same later with Ollie and Maya. But when we get to the end, it gets a little sappy, which isn't exactly Smith's forte. And Ollie having this big ephiphany after a chat with a celebrity which I won't name, was just dumb and could've been handled better. But Smith makes up for it with a scene at the very end which was very sincere and fitting. There are a few little bits involving Broadway plays, that, if you aren't into the theatre that much, or don't live in the Big Apple, might get a little annoying. But, overall, this is another fine script by Mr. Smith.
Smith's direction is top-notch, bringing out the best in his talent, as usual. There never has been anything really fancy about Smith's direction. He doesn't really use any elaborate cinematography and very rarely uses special effects. But his writing is so rich and developed that he doesn't really need to use these sort of things at the helm, which is what I've always liked about Smith. He lets his work as a writer speak more than his work as a director. And in a Hollywood where big-shot directors run in different directions with other writer's scripts, that sort of thing is very nice to see.
Jersey Girl is a movie about loss and growth, and how to cope with both of them. A lot of Smith's younger fans might not approve of such serious fare from Smith, after making us all laugh so hard for so many years. But, for me - a slightly-older guy who has worshiped his work, and is starting to "grow up" - it's nice to see a wonderful filmmaker like Smith growing up and evolving as well.