Mostly routine, it's boy meets `Jersey Girl'


March 26, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

SUN SCORE ** 1/2

Jersey Girl represents Kevin Smith's attempt to remain contemporary and at least marginally cutting-edge while going formulaic. The answer is, he can, but that may not be good news.

Because the one thing that could always be said about Kevin Smith is that he was an original. Even when he churned out what, on the surface, may have seemed a conventional love story (Chasing Amy), he turned the genre on its ear; in how many boy-girl romances is the girl an avowed lesbian?

Jersey Girl is old-style to the core, the story of a guy who meets a girl, marries her, has her die on him and is forced to somehow soldier on. Complicating matters is the presence of a daughter who serves as an ever-present reminder of his wife, which proves both a blessing and a curse.

And to this old chestnut of a formula, Smith adds ... nothing. Yes, there's some salty dialogue, and there are darkly whimsical touches, but Smith can do that stuff in his sleep. What he can't seem to do, at least not yet, is make an old-fashioned romantic comedy that brings anything really new to the picture.

Ben Affleck, a Kevin Smith mainstay who could really stand to be in a good film, is Ollie Trinke, a PR flack who's at the top of his game, working for a prestigious New York firm and making the celebrity gossip pages safe for all manner of rock stars, movie stars and other major-media types. His picture-perfect life becomes complete when he meets and falls for Gertrude (Jennifer Lopez). They marry, live happily -- despite the occasional fights over his workaholic tendencies -- and drink in all the good things life has to offer.

Of course, bliss rarely lasts in the movies, and here it ends abruptly when Gertrude dies in childbirth. A devastated Ollie loses patience with the world -- dangerous when you're in public relations, where the emphasis is always on making nice -- and soon loses his job as well, after mouthing off to a roomful of rock journalists impatiently awaiting Will Smith's arrival. (Not only is this one of the movie's best scenes, but it sets the stage for a later scene that is certainly crowd-pleasing, if predictable.)

And so Ollie moves back to Jersey, baby Gertie in tow, to live with his dad (George Carlin, who's wonderful) and come to terms with this idea of single parenthood. For the maniacally self-centered Ollie, that isn't easy.

Seven years pass, young Gertie has grown into a precocious and adorable grade-schooler (Raquel Castro, who looks much like a miniature version of J.Lo), and the rest of the movie is about Ollie's struggle to be a good dad, to allow a little romance back into his life (in the person of Liv Tyler's delightfully uninhibited video-store clerk) and regain the professional life he lost so abruptly.

Jersey Girl is pleasant enough, and moments stand out both for their hilarity (when young Gertie wants to perform a musical number for her school's talent show, she chooses a number from the bloody Sweeney Todd, while all her classmates do songs from Cats) and their poignancy. And the relationship between Ollie and Gertrude hits all the right notes (as it should -- you might have heard that Affleck and Lopez were an item at the time this movie was made).

The biggest problem with Jersey Girl may not be exactly its fault; what is up there on the screen is cute and funny and heartfelt, even if it is unflinchingly formulaic. It's just that we've all come to expect more from Kevin Smith. And here's betting that soon, we just might get it.

Jersey Girl

Starring Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler and George Carlin (cameo by Jennifer Lopez)

Directed by Kevin Smith

Released by Miramax

Rated PG-13 (language and sexual content including frank dialogue)

Time 103 minutes

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