THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Kevin Smith has been written off by his critics as being juvenile. They point to his films’ numerous jokes about stoners and slackers, sexual practices and body parts. What his fans know, however, is that Smith is one of the most intelligent writers around. The scatological stuff is often used to flesh out characters or to provide a counterpoint to a particular scene. And sometimes it’s just there because Smith knows it’s funny. If you still doubt the brains behind Smith’s humor, just consider the emotional truths he found about relationships in Chasing Amy; or his comic view of stringent Catholic rules in Dogma; or even the stinging satire of the internet fanboy culture in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back.

Smith’s latest film, Jersey Girl, is his most personal, mature, and, yes, commercial effort to date. It even carries a PG-13 rating. Ben Affleck plays Ollie Trinke, a music business PR guy who lives a fast-paced life in New York City. He’s all about the power, the suits, and the parties. Then he meets Gertrude (Jennifer Lopez) and falls madly in love. They get married and she gets pregnant. After he misses a Lamaze class, Gertrude warns him that he needs to stop being so selfish and start thinking like a family man. He generally ignores that warning. When Gertrude dies during childbirth, a distraught Ollie goes off the deep end, losing his job after publicly bashing a high-profile client. He takes his infant daughter and moves into the New Jersey home of his father (George Carlin). Ollie expects Pop (as he’s called) to take care of the child-raising duties, but his father eventually refuses in an effort at forcing his son to grow up. Ollie decides in that moment to be the best father he can be.

Cut to young Gertie (Raquel Castro) at age seven. She and Ollie still live with Pop; Ollie works for the borough alongside his dad, sweeping streets and fixing water main breaks. On a trip to the video store, they meet Maya (Liv Tyler), whom they strike up a friendship with. Gertie hopes it will turn into something more, but Ollie is still very much in love with his late wife. Then he gets a chance to go back to the job he lives, working for a different PR firm. We realize that Ollie has not only lost his wife, but also his life – the life he led (and loved) previously. Neither Gertie, nor Pop, nor Maya wants him to go; they all argue that his new life is the one he should be living. Ollie, however, has been secretly clinging to the idea that he might one day return to a more high-profile kind of career.

Jersey Girl has a lot of bits and pieces we’ve seen in other films. We get scenes of Ollie, the new dad, trying to learn how to care for an infant. We get the big scene where he has to decide whether to pursue his old job, which is good for him, or stay in New Jersey, which is good for his daughter. And we also get the climactic scene in which he has to race through city streets trying to get to Gertie’s school recital on time. Despite some familiarity, the movie works because it has Smith’s own personal stamp on it. Whereas other films used these plot elements as manipulation, Jersey Girl uses them to tell a story from the heart. Smith’s message is that the sacrifices we make for the good of our children are worth it. Parenthood brings with it a great responsibility, and if you want to be a parent you’d darn well better be ready to take the job seriously.

I’ve always felt that Kevin Smith’s gifts were his ability to create memorable characters and his ability to write first-rate dialogue. The guy is very well tuned into how people speak and behave. Jersey Girl has characters who seem real. We feel like these might be people we’d actually know. They speak intelligently, often with great humor. The screenplay features a lot of dialogue-driven moments that are powerful (such as one in which Ollie pledges his devotion to his infant daughter) or hilarious (like the nuggets of wisdom dispensed by Pop). Because these things are authentic, Jersey Girl hit me on an emotional level. This is not just another movie about a frustrated adult dealing with a precocious kid; it’s a genuine story about a man trying to be the best dad he can be.

The casting is just perfect. Ben Affleck has been in every Kevin Smith movie with the exception of Clerks. He’s very in tune with his friend’s dialogue rhythms, so he’s able to really bring Ollie to life. Affleck has some moments here that will break your heart (such as the scene where Gertrude dies and the aforementioned pledge to an infant Gertie). I was also impressed with young Raquel Castro, who avoids child-actor clichés. She’s cute without being cutesy. With her fiery attitude, she’s sort of like a little J. Lo running around (which definitely works to the advantage of the story). All the supporting players are well-cast too. George Carlin is proving himself a pretty good actor, and Jennifer Lopez takes a small role and realizes it so that you feel Ollie’s loss when she’s gone.

Kevin Smith has always made a point of saying that he’s not a visual stylist, but Jersey Girl ends with an elegantly simply final shot of father and daughter. It’s a touching conclusion to a story that celebrates what it really means to be a parent. There may be some dissent among those Kevin Smith fans who crave only the raucous humor of Clerks or the edgy realism of Chasing Amy. There’s no doubt that Jersey Girl is softer around the edges, the work of a former wisenheimer who’s mellowed since marriage and fatherhood became part of his life. But that’s okay. Those of us who discovered Smith ten years ago have grown up as well. Some will call this movie corny and sentimental. I call it wonderful.

( 1/2 out of four)

Jersey Girl is rated PG-13 for language and sexual content including frank dialogue. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.

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