RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 32: Kevin Smith’s “Jersey Girl” (2004)


The Players…

Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, George Carlin and Raquel Castro, with Stephen Root, Mike Starr, Jason Biggs and Jennifer Lopez (ugh).

The Story…

After affluent music publicist Ollie Trinke loses his wife, his job, his home, his self-respect and his station in life, reality slaps him upside his yuppie head. However, amidst the debris, he gains a daughter, and she turns out to be the biggest, most important responsibility he’s ever had to own up to. But he learns he can’t do it alone. Sometimes even the tireless of single dads needs a shoulder to lean on. And that is exactly why he frequents the local video rental.

The Rant…

I’m gonna blog out again. Fair warning.

We’ve all had them. Menial jobs. The work that doesn’t really pay the rent, but keeps us wealthy in Ramen. What little revenue we gain from such posts often means the difference between having a night out or reliable Internet service. We’ve all had them. And if you haven’t, well, bully for you. You want whipped cream on that?

Back in college (here we go again), I worked part-time at the local coffee house. It was a mom-and-pop operation. In truth is it was a failed-relationship-steeped-in-recovered-heroin-addiction-but-still-maintaining-the-business-operation-because-no-matter-what-the-state-says-methadone-is-not-cheap-and-besides-the-deed-was-in-our-name operation. It was a nice place. I was a barista. Not a guy who wore a visor and apron emblazoned with the parent/corporate logo and pressed a lot of pre-programmed buttons. An honest-to-God, grungy, cliquey coffee house often manned by your fave know-it-all. I was trained in all the nuances of an expensive, imported espresso press/steamer—the kind of gear equivalent in value to a small car—with more knobs than a three-storey cathouse. I brewed coffee, made pastries, learned how the steamer worked so as both to not burn the milk as well as make it properly froth and the difference between a high-gluten yield and non-gluten one 20 years before it became a diet fad. The works. The place was a dingy, subterranean, literally a basement property beneath the local bodega that served real coffee, real espresso drinks, pastry and bread made on premises. The joint offered solace to beleaguered students and teachers alike. A thick haze of cigarette smoke you could cut with only the klatches the local profs held with their afterhours beyond lectures hung over the place. It was the closest thing I would ever experience to Boehme Greenwich Village a fool could in Central New York.

Not like the café gig was a going-somewhere career.

It was indeed a menial job, but it had its perks, so to speak. Free coffee, a quiet place to study, cool music (most of which courtesy of yours truly’s mixtapes), the occasional open mike act and nary an apron in sight. I think I spent the better part of my sophomore to senior evenings there. I would whip up off-kilter drinks (the lychee and cocoa latte failed to go over well), promote and solicit the local bagel baker, take the occasional date there (they always seemed to be impressed when I had to dip away from our table to service a customer) and also push our homemade scones. Best in town, especially since nowhere else in the town actually offered scones.

It was a nice job, but indeed menial. Paid peanuts. For instance, I once had to dip into the joint’s kitty for $20 just to score some beer. No worries, I paid it back in tips. But then again my folks had to cough up the monthly $35 data fee for the then burgeoning home Internet service (it was the 90’s). Whatever coin I pocketed was usually spent on CDs, books, phone bills and booze, three of the four usually employed to impress a date. Sometimes it even worked.

Nevertheless, what little the gig offered in the way of cash more than made up for some life lessons offered. Some of my fave profs held study groups there (remind me to tell you all about Prof. Thomas sometime. It’s a good story). There were the faux Boehme who would angst out and do fruitless punk sh*t there, like a lot of screaming about socialism, crushing coffee mugs against the already pitted wall and basically recreating whatever Ian MacKaye sang about that year. There was also a curious and engaging contingent of exchange students from Tokyo who would only commune with the sole white guy within a thousands clicks of the Finger Lakes who could speak Kanji, and I later learned they were merely talking about their escapades at the mall. And their classes. You gotta take priority when you can.

Anyway, it was there at the café that I met the Blofeld to my James Bond. His name was Mark, three years older than me, grad student studying law. Tax law. I once asked him, “Why tax law?” I was a fan of TV crime dramas and was totally ignorant of due process outside of Jerry Orbach’s snarky asides. “Why not criminal law?” I asked.

He told me. There was always an opportunity to make new law with taxes. The laws changed almost annually. Criminal law was different. So many precedents had already been set, so the opportunity to make “new” criminal law was almost nil. Mark didn’t necessarily have aspirations to be the next Bruce Spizer or anything; he just had an endless desire to learn new things and share acquired knowledge with anyone who walked into view, whether they wanted it or not. Enter young me.

Mark was a wiseass, armchair philosopher and pop culture sponge. We often worked together on the night shift at the café. We would goof around, wax political about social mores and their failures, talk movies and put on shows for our guests. Example? First there was Punctuation Night. A la The Electric Company, we’d draw exaggerated, cartoony punctuation on poster board and whenever we served a guest, we’d hold up the cards concluding each sentence or question with a card screaming “.” or “?” respectively. It played out something like this:

“Hi (exclamation point card)”

“Can I help you (question mark)”

“Would you like some coffee (comma) or maybe a muffin…”

You get it. It was juvenile. Such antics reminded Mark of and prompted him to tell me about the movie Clerks. He was endlessly quoting from it, and after I finally saw it, I followed suit. Mark and I were Randal and Dante, and we held those images sacred at work, even if the job wasn’t nearly as crushing as working at the Quick Stop. Practical jokes, snide comments to the people we deemed as not hip, endlessly arguing the merits of this scholar versus whatever pop culture issue we were chewing on that week was the routine.

So yeah, Mark introduced me to Kevin Smith’s movies. I watched Clerks to death; it was a calling card  to being 20-something and going nowhere in the 90s. I liked Smith’s dry humor and indie rock aesthetic. His other films like Chasing Amy and Dogma toed the line between heady and comic, with most of his work questioning the great values—or lack thereof—in these our United States. Like my peers, we probably looked too deeply into Smith’s oeuvre, especially his clunky Mallrats. His “dirty realism” is appealing, tempered with crude references to drug abuse, kinky sex and comic books.

All of which is lacking in Jersey Girl…

Ollie Trinke (Affleck) was once on the up and up. A cutthroat New York publicist for the music biz, shouting from the rooftops extolling the value of Madonna and the Fresh Prince (this was in the early 90’s) and living a near-rock star existence himself. Big office, big car, big money and dozens of assistants at his beck and call.

Once. It all began to fall apart after he got married.

Ollie and Gertie (J. Lo) are destined to be the next big power couple, riding the media wave into the 21st Century. It’s only natural they want to start a family, and when Gertie finds herself pregnant, Ollie is ecstatic. Things are really happening.

But such things are not to be. Gertie dies during the delivery. Ollie is left a single dad, bleak and trying to cope with a shattered family while maintaining his high stress job. It doesn’t work, and when Ollie openly trashes his new client at a press conference, well…bye-bye career.

Ollie leaves Manhattan in shame only to decamp in his hometown of Highlands, NJ with his infant daughter in tow. He moves back into his childhood home, sharing the world of parenting and beer with his gruff, blue-collar Pop (Carlin). Now Ollie occupies his time with trying to get back into the business, ignoring baby Gertie, and tasking Pop with performing the necessary fatherly duties. Ollie assures Pop this situation is only temporary until he finds a new job.

Seven years later:

Ollie’s still living in Jersey, doing menial work driving a street sweeper and doing his best to give grammar school Gertie (Castro) a normal, stable life. But Ollie misses her mom, misses the security his marriage once offered him. Misses other people. It’s only until a random stop at the local video store for some porn where he meets the kindly Maya (Tyler). She seems to know a few things about relationships, as well as taking a shine to Ollie’s awkward single dad status. She thinks she can help Ollie out of his funk, but it’s gonna be under some peculiar conditions…

I wanted to like Jersey Girl. I really did.

Jersey Girl was Kevin Smith’s first straightforward, “mature” film. A simple story, said to reflect the director’s own newfound status as married man and a dad. Reflective or no, Jersey Girl is almost too straightforward. The movie starts out kinda textbook, and just moves from chapter to chapter with nary a whit of elation or pathos to drive any conflict. It’s all connect-the-dots, and the movie fails to radiate any warmth that Smith desperately wanted to convey to his fans. The edge Smith honed in his other films is whittled down to a nub here, with none of the snarky spark that made Clerks and Dogma such spicy fun. There’s no subtlety of storytelling here, almost as if Smith wanted to make damn sure the audience understood the gravity of his new role. It’s never a good idea to pander to the audience, and downright knuckleheaded to think the masses won’t “get it” without cue cards. Punctuation or no.

The faults with Jersey Girl are small, but many. They add up. Kind of like a small cut on your finger that goes untreated and eventually gets infected: it all comes to a head after awhile. Too bad the story doesn’t come to a head.

The most glaring fault with Girl is the acting. It’s been debated back and forth with folks wiser than me that if Affleck and Lopez can actually act. After watching Girl, the vote’s still out. Affleck is as flat as could be. His Ollie is transparent and wooden. He’s just not likeable, and you can’t get behind a lead you don’t like. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of anti-heroes out there you can root for, but they usually have a strong personality, startling presence and are well-written. And also after a promising start with Out of Sight (almost two decades ago), J. Lo’s acting résumé has followed the law of diminishing returns. Granted she’s only offered a few scenes in Girl (amid the torrid real-life love affair with Affleck, which the celeb press could simply not get enough of), which she fails to make a case to being in front of a camera rather than a microphone, and even that is a case left by the bench. She’s dull, he’s dull. End of story.

Only it’s not. There are two distinct highlights of the movie regarding acting. George Carlin as Pop is a distilled version of the comic Noo Yawk persona that was his stock-in-trade for decades. His whole performance in the movie is merely a drawn out take of his “I Used to Be Irish Catholic” bit from his 1972 album Class Clown. Ever grumpy, sardonic and winsome, Carlin gives some life, albeit one-note character to the film. You can take an easy shine to his Pop, as he channels a thousand world-weary working class fathers into a simple 90-minute film. I wished he were used more wisely in Girl, if only as a tent pole. Carlin as cuddly? It oddly works. Also, the final scene in the bar? Carlin’s best role ever.

Castro brings out the limited best in Affleck. Sure, she may be the token moppet serviced as the axis the whole film revolves around, but the rapport between her Gertie and Affleck’s Ollie is simply great. It’s the best acting in the film. It’s almost like a film within the film. Everything else is bumping up against the set. Get Castro and Affleck together, and hey, there might be a story there. Too bad it’s so fleeting.

On a similar hand, I like the unsure nature of the Ollie/Maya potential. Here is where Smith’s mercurial taste of failing relationships takes a pit stop. With Ollie and Maya, there is this unsaid tension. It’s funny to say this since everything else in Girl plays out so literally. The abrupt way they come together, the sorting out of Ollie’s issues, Maya’s interactions with Gertie, all of these aspects are not examined in a way that could be considered “open.” Perhaps this was due to poor chemistry between Tyler and Affleck, but I don’t think so. There was something there that wasn’t fully fleshed out, and left a feeling of insecurity; there was some possible tension which the story sorely needed. Again, maybe I’m looking for something that just wasn’t there. There is a sense of something missing pervading all of Girl’s script.

I think that one of the reasons Girl is so linear was to serve as training wheels for Smith’s usual audience. Gone are the pop culture riffs, innuendo, edgy commentary and Jay and Silent Bob. Instead its all been replaced with warm and fuzzy. This might have thrown the core stoner crowd for a loop. There would be confusion, rioting in the aisles. Anarchy! And why isn’t this movie taking place in Red Bank?!? At least Jason Lee and Matt Damon get a cameo that might sate the crazed audience, rejecting this new, “family friendly” Smith. He wants to stretch himself and be all post-ironic making a film that reflects an open door policy on the foibles of life, all sunny and cute.

And Girl has a horrible case of the cutes. Right, sure. It’s cute, but that can only go so far. The treacle Smith was trying to spin here might have been from a muse that spouted blindly from his new “grown-up” status, so much so that his camera lens got bleary from too much talcum powder. There’s this pervasive sweetness at work here, but it gets cloying. Granted it does work; it’s the glue holding this derivative narrative together. But again, does he have to be so f*cking literal in delivery?

Thanks to Mark, I learned a belated lesson about how to appreciate Smith’s movies. And thanks to my reverence, I always eventually learned to appreciate the sum of their parts. Smith’s films are jagged, irreverent and ultimately rewarding being steeped in scatological humor, the human condition, and a healthy dose of dick jokes. Jersey Girl had none of that. Smith was trying to straighten his tie directing this one, and it fooled nobody. With such a straight line from beginning to finish, little was remaining for his signature left field sense of hockey helmet humor. It was like a Spielberg flick sans gaping eyes.

Jersey Girl is too much forced drama, set to a cool soundtrack. It’s an unfortunate color-by-numbers story, and we can all see it coming. Where’s Jay and Silent Bob when you need ‘em?

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. It’s too connect-the-dots to allow any real feeling of drama or humor, despite Smith’s best intentions. Flat, flat, flat. Snooch to the nooch.

Stray Observations…

  • “What are your intentions…to my daughter?”
  • Video store, eh? Kevin Smith meta?
  • “That’s a lot.”
  • Affleck is good with kids. There. I said it.
  • “You gettin’ a dog?” Funniest line in the whole damn movie.
  • This was the first View Askew production to not feature Jay and Silent Bob. Maybe if they were included, some much-needed levity could’ve happened. Right, Lunchbox?
  • “What are your intentions…with my father?”
  • Joe bless George Carlin.

Next Installment…

Can Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson survive the perils of The Island? Not the island itself, per se. Y’know, just surviving a Michael Bay movie.


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