RIORI Vol 3, Installment 28: Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone” (2007)



The Players…

Casey Affleck, Ed Harris, Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Freeman (here again), with John Ashton, Amy Ryan, Amy Madigan and Titus Welliver.

The Story…

When an innocent gets kidnapped, it’s always news. When it’s a poor, white girl? Good Lord, send out the tanks. But what if the child “needed” to be kidnapped? Had to be taken out of a dangerous situation?

PI Pat Kenzie might’ve taken the time to ask these questions. Instead he got pulled into this circumstance already. Against his will, against heavy odds of cracking the case, and soon against the wall.

The Rant…

After my last, extremely goofy installment, I’m gonna try to play it straight (okay, straighter) this time out. Besides, this week’s scrutiny is over a serious movie, so I’ll try to leave out a lot of the pretzel logic. That and I’ve never been much for Steely Dan anyway.


Never been much of an Affleck fan. At least not Ben.

If you’ve been alive since the 90s, Ben’s star had been gradually—and then meteorically—on the rise. With somewhat good reason. Despite being straightforward and kinda derivative, Ben and his buddy Matt Damon’s breakthrough script for Good Will Hunting opened the  floodgates to increasingly better gigs. Profitable if merely artistically. Keep in mind though, Ben got his Oscar for writing not acting (and I don’t see such rewards towards that in the foreseeable future. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong some century).

It’s easy to slag on Ben the actor. He’s had precious few roles that earned some respect beyond just his scribbling. Really. Victim by proxy to a stink palm only goes so far to engender an actor’s respectability. Nor does playing a blind superhero dancing on seesaws with his future wife. Or running in J.Lo’s circle period. Even when does a serviceable, even good job with the roles he’s been given (e.g.: Dazed And Confused, Chasing Amy, Hollywoodland, et al) Ben’s repeatedly drawn the short stick regarding career enhancement via thespian. Let’s hope his finger-crossing turn as Batman might not go tits up. Unsure on many fronts (hard to get Daredevil’s playground scene out of my head). But he’s dogged. Keeps on trying. Gotta respect that.

Still not a fan, though.

On the other side of the camera, however, Ben has shown promise. Even considering the mediocre script behind Hunting, his directing acumen has been increasing in leaps and bounds. I’ve been as surprised as you have. Both The Town and especially Argo (which won Best Pic, BTW) were pretty good films. Satisfying. Not necessarily excellent, but there’s a short list of prominent—let alone good—films directed by faces usually in front of the camera. Ordinary People by Redford. Dances With Wolves (for good or for ill) by Costner. Unforgiven  by Eastwood. Pretty short list there. Kinda surprising in some respects that Ben earned membership into that club. I’m not put off by that.

His acting, however? We’ll just let that go for now, okay?

His l’il bro, on the other hand, I’ve found quite interesting. Blame or thank Hunting for this. In a sense, that was Casey Affleck’s breakout role. All 15 minutes of it (not a cliche, I timed it. Don’t ask why). For all the fluff in Hunting—good fluff, to be fair—there was one scene where Casey held the camera. If you’ve seen the movie you know what I’m talking about. The bar scene, the one about the cop car. Right, that. One of the best shaggy dog stories I’ve ever heard in a movie, and Casey delivered it in a classic, “you talkin’ to me?” accent via Bahstun. Wicked pissa.

I’ve been in moments like that. You’ve been in moments like that. The wiseass, Spanky-esque wingman with the tales to tell and too many pints too fast. The term “relatable” regarding characters has been bandied about so much it has ceased to carry much weight, even though I’ve used it here at RIORI one too many hundred times. I’ve been slow to learn—and am still learning—that making a character relatable on screen in tough. You can have the everyman, as in every role Redford has ever done. You can have the beleaguered, humorous guy, as in every role Steve Martin has done. You can have the assh*le—in a good way—like Pacino’s entire CV (c’mon, Tony Montana was a doosh, but folks still love him). What I’m saying is being a relatable character in a movie requires moxie. Doubt that? Well, if you think about it Travis Bickle is a relatable character. Right you scum?

I’m not trying to overplay my hand here, but Casey’s camera grab didn’t feel like a fluke. It felt to me more like an introduction. It didn’t end there, nor really start there either. Casey had the Ocean’s 11 series, Out Of The Furnace, Interstellar. Character roles, malleable, chameleon-like, something his big brother isn’t as good at pulling off with much conviction (not to beat Ben up, but he did star in not one but two Michael Bay travesties. Wait, is that redundant?). Read: Casey might direct someday, too. As well pen a few scripts. So the guy’s been busy even (almost) living in the shadow of his award-winning, smarmy big bro. Casey’s been on the rise.

Not sure if he ever carried a movie, though. You know, as the lead.

I recently found out he had…

There’s been a kidnapping.

Madeline McCready. Four years old. A good girl, pretty, sweet. Scooped out of a run-down South Boston neighborhood amongst many run-down neighborhoods. The case has either baffled the police, or too much red tape is keeping the investigation mired. The hell of it is that there are precious few clues, no obvious motive, not even a real ransom demand. The kid’s just…gone.

Private investigator Patrick Kenzie (Affleck) is an expert in such matters. Missing persons in general, lost children in specific. He and his “partner” Angie (Monaghan) usually keep away from high profile cases like the McCready kidnapping. But he’s local, as little Maddy’s Aunt Bea (Madigan) learns, and she and her distraught brother Lionel (Welliver), frustrated with the cops dragging their feet seek Pat out. He reluctantly takes the case after meeting the “distraught,” coked-up mother Helene (Ryan), an odious creature if there ever was one. Pat wonders if Maddy is better off elsewhere than with the failure that is Helene.

Despite the police commissioner himself, Jack Doyle (Freeman) spearheading the search, Pat’s getting little cooperation from the cops in finding Maddy, save grizzled, experienced Lt Remy Brussant (Harris). Remy appears to have a personal agendum regarding the kidnapping. And the child’s immediate family is dodgy with even raising a finger to find Maddy, as if almost protecting her from Helene despite the awful crime.

Pat finds himself getting bounced and bombarded about Southie’s underbelly in trying to get a crack in the case. And no one is helping. It feels like finding Maddy is an afterthought against not finding her.

After all the headaches, it looks like to Kenize that the kid is nothing but…gone…

One could make the argument that Gone Baby Gone is Ben Affleck’s bid for critical respect on his own feet, minus Damon. This is also his debut as a director, as well as employing overt nepotism. I only mention this because, well, if you’re a first time director it would be plenty handy to have your lead be someone you’d be quite familiar with. A family member would be a good choice. Okay, it didn’t work with Sofia in the third Godfather movie. Then again, almost nothing worked there. But there’s the case for the Carradines, the Howards and the Sutherlands. Hell, I think some of those folks have actually worked together. Mostly positive results there. I’m no expert mind you, but I’ve seen one on TV.

With Baby, director Ben was pretty shrewd in casting in his baby bro Casey as the fulcrum upon which the script balances. Casey’s performance as Pat pleasantly surprised me based on his drunken bit part in Hunting. I know, it was probably the first time you saw Casey in action also. But the swaggering boozehound morphed into a cagey PI—quite well, BTW—was an unexpected turn. The fact it worked wasn’t necessarily shocking, but oddly refreshing. I didn’t fancy Casey for the emotive type sans ham. Granted, Ben knew how to pull Casey’s strings, but it’s probably safe to assume the guy was willing. Both made it work.

This was a very character-driven film. Very. Good thing all of the cast was interesting. To explain, when the casting call went out, “local color” responded. The kidnapping case was nothing more than wallpaper for the cast to keep pasting up. I know. All dramas play that way, but I can’t immediately recall any recent drama where the almighty Maguffin is so shoved aside to let balls-to-the-wall characterization carry everything. So much so that—in Baby‘s case anyway—the plot element gets sidelined to baffle the audience as to what the f*ck is going on. I guess that’s what makes for a good mystery-drama. One gets the impression within all this story everybody wants something from someone for nothing. All of Baby is nothing bit one big personal agendum, and the audience is relentlessly pummeled by this. It’s all good.

There’s a significant flaw in executing a crime drama/mystery thriller: replay value. How can one make a film like Baby captivating over a second viewing even though you know how it ends? Sharp characterization. We got it here. Boom. Like I said. This being an uber-character driven film, I gotta tackle all facets (or try to) of our beloved family, the good and the warts. Hey, my prerogative and duty. I do this so you don’t have to, like wiping. But seriously, and beyond ragged Pat, we got a holy host of live ones to nail up.

First off, however, is a complaint. Right, right. Bitch, bitch. Gonna go here first and sweep the crumbs under the mat. I saw Baby with the wifey. We enjoyed it with a cringe, but throughout the film I had a nagging feeling. So much of one I had to bother her halfway through the movie. Hit pause, turned around and asked about Angie. I commented that Monaghan seemed too fragile to handle the gig she had. She felt out of place. The woman’s comment (and she nailed it)? She’s seemed an afterthought. She was. Baby is an man’s, man’s, man’s, man’s world. All our male leads tear it up, and lonely Monaghan gets lost in the shuffle. Even Ryan’s harridan Helene has more testosterone than Angie. Maybe her frailty was there as a steam valve for all the relentless tension, but being wispy throughout didn’t do much in that regard.

Other than Monaghan’s miscasting, the rest of the actors were excellent. I’ve already given a high five to Casey, but the rest of our crew was just as notable. Hats off to (Ed) Harris—a little Led Zep pun there. We need to lay off the serious now and again—he’s always solid. His Remy is a relishing role. He really chews it up, almost to the point of hamminess but delivered so convincingly you just end up rolling with it. Harris’ skill as an actor is “selling it.” No matter how engaging, how silly, how dependable he can be his characters always sell. Even his Bud in The Abyss (my favorite Cameron movie. Don’t judge me). Without a whit of irony. His Remy is no different. And what’s cool is his Remy is sketchy. His is a con artist ready to con (or in some cases here re-con) any poor soul like Pat into a sense of righteousness in whatever it takes to get the job done. Kinda chilling if you think about it. In short, you gotta respect Ed Harris.

Funny Harris being second fiddle really. Again, barring Monaghan, the second tier was also expertly cast. For instance, I don’t know if Ryan got a nod towards any movie noms, but if not she should have for her sleaze in Baby. Her Helene was odious. Talk about deadbeat dads? What about monstrous moms? The assh*ole, absentee dad is a well-worn trope. Now I ask you, tell me a tale in the world of celluloid of a notable c*nt of a mom after Mommy Dearest?

*counting fingers*

Ryan’s Helene was hellacious. Her character was a high school PSA for birth control. Oh God, if after seeing Baby with Ryan skulking about and you wouldn’t seek a condom, maybe a scalpel? Yer a f*ckin retard. Her turn was that good. Good in the sense of awful. It takes a pretty talented actress to make you want a shower after seeing her perform. See Angie? That’s how it’s done. Yuk.

*time for an intermission, and you are welcome*

If you saw my snarky parenthetical reference in The Players meme up top (and I’m sure you did) Morgan Freeman showed up. For the past I don’t know how many years, Freeman’s been the go to guy for…well, everything. I’m guessing that based on prior installments, as well as my vitriol against the banal and repetitive. I’m gonna slag Freeman’s overexposure for all it’s worth, right?

Not necessarily.

I’ve been pretty straightforward with this installment. I pride myself on being a loony. Occasionally I rein it in. But I feel I’d be remiss in sharing with the lot of y’all a personal twist on this trip out. Never to fear, it involves Red Ellis. It also involves Eazy Reader.

Presently, as I write/edit this installment—as I do with almost all my screeds here at RIORI—I have a soundtrack busting out of my iTunes library. Been listening to the Irish punk band Stiff Little Fingers. I don’t care if you’ve ever heard of them. No snobbery here. However regarding Freeman’s movie career, and in keeping with the time-out we’re in here, my digital library serves as an analog towards Freeman’s prolific/overexposed FaceTime. Again, Eazy Reader.

I know I’m rambling, but so does Freeman’s career. Ever see Brubaker? Hole in one. Consider this a trip to the snack bar. Let’s let it get away for a punch. Remember to lower the seats.

Ever since Freeman earned Academy respect with Million Dollar Baby, the guy has been in almost every single American film since 2004. Regardless of genre, demand or soundtrack, Freeman has dotted the Is and crossed the Ts in The Bucket List, Oblivion, The Lego Movie, Last Vegas, Wanted, Invictus, Born To Be Wild, RED, Dolphin Tale, Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, Olympus Has Fallen, Dolphin Tale TWO, Lucy, Ted 2, LONDON Has Fallen

You catching my drift? The guy’s a great actor, but can we say overexposed? What’s next? The Larry Bird Story starring Morgan Freeman? Maybe.

A few things. First, maybe the guy is just in demand for his versatility and loves to act. Second, the man’s getting up there in years and perhaps wants to pack as much thespian punch as he can before the clock runs down. Third, he’s been following the Nic Cage law of diminishing returns and just can’t turn down a script no matter how career threatening it may prove to be. I repeat: Dolphin Tale 2.

Whatever it is that drives the man, his Jack Doyle—though delivered with the usual Freeman gravitas, sincerity and sensibility—is a waste of his talent. Here Freeman is nothing more than a glorified cameo, seemingly only around to give the big reveal. I hated that. An actor of Freeman’s caliber (but may be quickly becoming a bore. Ha!) should do more than just give face time in an otherwise compelling mystery. What I’m getting at here is any actor could’ve played Doyle. Even Ed Harris. Morgan’s been stretching himself thin for a while now, and his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role in Baby is a good example of that. Too bad. Freeman is a graceful actor. It’s probably why he’s so popular/in demand, although his fans might not realize that.

Back to normal.

Like a lot of crime dramas, atmosphere and overall feel are crucial to setting the pace of the movie. I’m not talking pace pace here (although we get nice and thick with Baby‘s even pace), I’m talking about dragging it out just enough to 1) create intrigue and; 2) enhance both tension and the need to make the audience scratch their collective skulls. What’s going on here? That’s what a decent police procedural should ask you.

Baby does this in spades. It was edgy in a very good way. That’s a term oft overused in most crime dramas. It’s not here. Even with some stilted dialogue—though not totally off-putting—grimy stereotypes galore and a lotta hypocrisy throughout, Baby is overall interesting in how the “real” investigation gets underway (even if that was not until the third act). Some might find a million cliches and jillion other movies being tagged here, it’s not about the notes, but how you play ’em as I like to scream to the rafters. Often. A lot.

Here’s an example: it felt like Taxi Driver was a major influence on this production, but done with taste. At least half the scenes were shot in the demimonde, buttering the tension all over the place. All poor lighting and angular camera work. We also enter into Rashomon territory; who’s version of the truth is the truth? Baby keeps you asking, almost frustratingly so. This could just be overspill from the source novel, but I wasn’t so sure. At any rate, it kept me a-scratchin’, and that’s what made Baby good. A mystery should keep you wondering. Like Hitchcock said, “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” Any perceived lameness of script (even though the final act was indeed hurried) can be overcome by skillfully squeezing the audience’s scrotum by way of acting, atmosphere or even a keening note from the soundtrack. Dusky characterization, rough cinematography and/or glaring lighting—which were great here, BTW—can still blur the corners. If a movie’s good, watch it and damn the torpedoes. Suffer.

That being said Baby was a tough movie to get through overall. That’s a complement. The hard sh*t you want—need—to remember. The plot, the content, the difficult (but memorable) characters. All that jive. I think Ben might be onto something with this whole directing bit. Working with his kid bro seems fruitful, too. Perhaps there’s enough juice getting brewed to perhaps excuse Jersey Girl. That and maybe Tower Heist. Could be possibilities abound.

“Yeah. One or two.”

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a solid caper, directed by an actor I cannot stand starring his little bro as a baby-faced, Southie, wizened detective hell-bent on finding lost children. I still liked it. Deal. Argo was pretty okay, also. I cheated on my taxes, too. And I still like Oasis, okay?

Stray Observations…

  • “It’s not that, Lionel.” “What is it then?” “She’s a c*nt!” Looks like Family Feud is written all over this one.
  • Harris’ hairpiece is terrible. You can’t take such a thing seriously. The actor’s been bald for the better part of his storied career and has done fine without wigs. He wouldn’t’ve gotten that award for Pollock if he sported a ‘fro, right?
  • If a newcomer to America came up to me and asked, “What is white trash?” I’d hand him a copy of this movie.
  • “You are an abomination.”
  • “And get that sausage off my lawn!” Gotta use that. At least once.
  • I thought Taggert retired by the third film?
  • “It was an accident…”
  • “Murder’s a sin.” “Depends on who you do it to.”
  • Best drinking scene I’ve ever seen on film. At least to my immediate whiskey-addled memory. I think there was something in Raiders…(passes out)
  • “That’s not an ‘if’ you wanna bring into your life.”
  • Casey’s eyes in the big reveal is cunning.
  • Confession scene one: Bea calls the media. What else would she do?
  • “…I love children.”

Next Installment…

James Franco? Kate Hudson? They’s Good People. But them Yanks just gotta be careful ’bout rooms to let, true guv?

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.