RIORI Volume 3, Installment 8: Mike Binder’s “Reign Over Me” (2007)

Reign Over Me

The Players…

Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle, Jada Pinkett Smith, Liv Tyler and Saffron Burrows, with Robert Klein, Melinda Dillon and Donald Sutherland.

The Story…

After a chance run-in with his old college roommate, Alan tries to reconnect with his friend who’s since fallen on hard times. But his old buddy Charlie wants nothing doing, regardless of how his life’s fallen into ruin. As far as Charlie’s concerned, all he needs is his music, video games and a kitchen to remodel. But Alan thinks there’s something more going on…and not just with Charlie.

The Rant…

I’m not entirely sure how Adam Sandler has had a successful movie career.

I’m not going to lambast the guy; that’s too easy. We all know his comedies are exercises in dumb, sophomoric, scatological and generally adolescent crapola. We know this. So does Sandler, as evidenced in recent, questionable newswires. He understands this very fact, and makes little to no apologies for his junk. Hell, if morons want to go to the movies to see Sandler act moronic himself, that’s their lookout. Sandler’s wisely adopted the classic “Hey, if you don’t like my sh*t, don’t go to the theatre” attitude. I’ve seen a few of his flicks, and some I’ve found fun—if taken with the right amount of salt. And weed. But overall they’re dumb with a capital Q, and that’s the point. His is mindless entertainment. You know what you’re in for when you go to a Sandler comedy, and it ain’t gonna be Shakespearean. It’s gonna be stupid, all pratfalls, farts and Adam’s signature screeching. And really, let’s face it, we all need a can of PBR to chase the single malt now and again, right?

Like I said, Sandler’s funny films—up until recently—do good business. But is it because they’re really funny? No, not really—at least not consistently. Sandler also doesn’t score many points for originality, either (wasn’t Blended essentially a re-write of 50 First Dates, Drew Barrymore notwithstanding?). As of late, Sandler’s audience has been drying up, perhaps finally getting hip to how old the joke’s become. And that’s just it, my opening statement: how has Sandler maintained a successful movie career for so long?

Every pop culture trend has a limited shelf life. If you’re an actor and get, say, seven years in the spotlight, you’re a true success. It’s even better if you score a few Oscars in the interim. Some actors’ work is best regarded within particular decades. Tom Hanks, for example, ruled the 90s with charm and chameleon-like acting chops; he’s like the modern day Jimmy Stewart. Pacino’s halcyon days were in the 70s. Hell, Shirley Temple held sway throughout the 30s—FDR even gave her a commendation for keeping morale up on the homefront. Barring Temple, the above actors are still active, but their cachet is waning (or with the case of Pacino, hurtling into self-parody and a never-ending toilet paper roll of sh*tty scripts). I’m not gonna bury the man before he’s dead, but along my argument, can you recall a truly noteworthy performance by Hanks in the past five years?

You chew on it; I’ll wait here.


Yeah. Me neither.

Despite some awesome Tom Hanks movies—running the gamut of roles and styles starting with Big in 1988 and winding down with Cast Away (“WILSON!”) in 2000—I think Hanks’ time in the spotlight is fading. I hope I’m wrong. I don’t want the guy to ultimately be best remembered for just Forrest Gump and “Houston, we have a problem.”

That’s not a bad thing, really. Examples? Even though he took up some really dumb roles at the end of his life/career, Marlon Brando will always be remembered fondly as Vito Corleone (or Col. Kurtz, or f*cking Jor-El, depending on who you ask). Regardless of DeNiro’s roles over the past 20 years delving into inane comedies or playing second fiddle to Bradley Cooper or Ben Stiller, most of us will always recognize Bob as Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta or Johnny Boy. All of those were great—if not signature—roles, and ultimately Brando is resting soundly, legacy secured.

Here. I know. I ramble. Let’s put it into simpler terms: consider the career lifespan of a rock star. If you’ve maintained the spotlight for three to five years, moved a million units, get a gig promo’d by Ryan Seacrest and hobnobbed with Kanye and Kim, then good on you; you made it. But precious few of us can be Bowie. Hell, most of us are Imagine Dragons.

So how come Sandler hasn’t become Hollywood’s latest iteration of “Radioactive” by now?

I know, I know. I hear ya screaming. It’s the whole Hollywood profit margin guided by either “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” or “If it works, beat it into the ground” in full operation, right? But if the actor or rock star examples above illustrate our ADHD cultural shelf life, then why haven’t we got sick of Sandler’s antics yet? I mean, we trade in our PlayStations every three to four years. Since Sandler’s rise into his heyday 20 years ago, there’s been four PlayStations (more if you include the Vita. I don’t), and at least with those consoles its media evolves, gets smarter and more sophisticated. Folks like that kind of thing, except when it comes to Adam Sandler’s film output apparently. There they like that as progressive as stone wheels-and-axles. Or a PSX.

Don’t get me wrong. I reassure you I don’t hate Sandler. I might hate some of his movies, but I’m not so out of joint to deny he’s a talented, funny guy. For instance, I liked The Wedding Singer and his screwball sports comedies The Waterboy and Happy Gilmore (or as I like to call it, Caddyshack for the 90s), not to mention that his salt mine years on SNL were great. But we’re still talking shelf life here, so here’s what I’m asking:

How can Sandler’s movie career be totally one-note yet has thrived for over twenty years?

Sandler—by conscious choice or an accident of design—has honed his on screen persona as loveable loser/irresponsible man-child to a razor sharp edge. He has played the same guy in almost every one of his 40-plus(!) movies, and we can always count on Adam to always deliver these goods in all of his movies—all of them:

  • Screaming,
  • Speaking in a funny voice,
  • Doing something musical,
  • Engaging in light physical comedy, and;
  • Acting all childlike.

In the face of examples presented by Hanks, Pacino and DeNiro with their films of diminishing returns and the present, increasing resentment of Sandler’s oeuvre—the audiences increasingly bored, and the plots (such as they are) growing beyond repetitive—his goofball act slogs ever onwards. By and large, his sh*t still sticks. Christ, even when he flexes his acting chops and tries his hand at a dramatic role, Sandler gets no quarter nor respect. He does get a response, however (mostly out of critical disbelief he’s actively trying to avoid peeing on camera), but the general public—his core fan base, rather—demand fart jokes, and the promise of serious drama as departure unpalatable.

As a professional actor, attempting to stretch and branch out, it’s become Sandler’s tender trap, what with the dyed-in-wool snot rockets on command. The people have spoken; they want belches. But now with 20 years under his belt, Sandler wants critical respect, even if it flies in the face of—defies—his lucrative cinematic legacy. Butt jokes and all.

Sandler’s stint in Reign Over Me is no different a situation. Well, maybe a little…

Success can be defined in quantitative measures in our society. What you do for a living. How much you earn. Where you live. What freedoms these things offer. Dr. Alan Johnson (Cheadle) can answer all these things with an affirmative. He’s a prominent cosmetic dentist. He has a nice Park Avenue apartment. He has his beautiful wife Janeane (Smith) and his equally wonderful daughters. He has money in the bank, a good reputation in his field, a nice ride and all the bells and whistles that a successful life allows.

Then how come Alan feels so bloody tight, trapped and depressed?

One day on his ride home from work stuck in the usual rush hour gridlock, Alan spies some guy on a scooter recklessly weaving around the stuck cars, oblivious to the traffic. Alan knows this guy. It’s Charlie Fineman (Sandler), his old roomie from dental school. Alan tries to flag him down, but Charlie’s oversized headphones cut him off from Alan’s cries, and from most of the world, too.

Lately, Charlie’s been zipping around Alan’s homebound route a great deal. Eventually Alan catches up with his old pal and asks him what’s up, what’s been going down? At first, Charlie is in a haze; he doesn’t recognize Alan. Charlie barely recognizes reality. The well-heeled Alan, all nice haircut and perfect cut of suit, tries to press Charlie. How have you been? What’s happened? How’s your family and why aren’t you listed in the directory of practicing dentists?

All Charlie can do is hitch on his headphones and get back on the scooter.

Alan asks around. What the hell happened to Charlie? He used to be an eager student and eventually a success story in the dental field. He had achieved the standing Alan now enjoys light-years before he even smelled a partnership. Now Charlie’s a disheveled mess instead. Again, what the hell happened?


Charlie lost his entire family when the planes hit. He also lost most of his sanity. He quit his practice. He gave in to his hobbies as lifestyle, such as it is. He shut out the world. Alan learns it’s PTSD; Charlie copes as well as he can with music, video games, government stipends and endlessly overhauling his kitchen.

It’s terrible. Despite Alan’s material success against sympathy, he reaches out to his old, wounded friend, hoping to get Charlie reacquainted with reality. Alan also hopes—learns—that reconnecting with his old roomie might give him some perspective on his present, boring, probably needlessly stressful life.

After all, Alan is still successful. He still has his wife, daughters, prestige and an office with his name on the door. All Charlie has is a drumkit, a PlayStation and a never-ending kitchen. And a sh*t-ton of memories he wishes he could shake…

Reign Over Me was a tragic waste of time.

(Oops! Did I give away my review already?)

Seriously. Sh*t, we had a veritable goldmine here to plumb. Post-9/11 New York? PTSD echoing the tragedy soldiers from the Mideast return home to face? How the mentally ill are both maligned and feared by the upwardly mobile?

Funk dat. We got Shadow of the Colossus instead. That and Bob Seger.

Oy. Reign falls under the auspices of what I’ll call the Lady in the Water syndrome (go read the review). This film had such great promise, and it dropped the ball more times than Manhattan has every New Year. The premise was ideal, with a classic, no-fail storytelling device: friendship and salvation. And director Binder screwed the whole pooch using a very deliberate and forced execution. His execution muddied the movie waters with cloying, inorganic drama, half-baked, inconsistent characterization and a sputtering pace that makes the film drag in most places and skitter away elsewhere. Reign is riddled with flaws, and it’s really a shame because the story had such promise…if it made some sense.

I don’t want to tear apart Reign just yet. I do want to spend my opening sortie picking apart the good —or at least noteworthy—aspects of the film. Since first and foremost this is a buddy movie/character study at heart—a very odd buddy movie, mind you—we have to talk about the acting. Naturally, Sandler and Cheadle’ characters.

All right. Y’all know I’ve got a man crush on Cheadle. I’ve also mentioned before here at RIORI that Cheadle is a fine actor that almost always gets stuck in dumb roles. He should get a new agent. Here his Alan is our Everyman; it’s kind of a stereotype—man who has everything feels trapped by his success—but Cheadle delivers it in a very down-to-earth way. I’d use the “have a beer” analogy here, but Binder already has a scene like that in Reign. Even though Cheadle’s had a track record for lame roles, he’s always good, and can make the most mundane character a little more three-dimensional.

The key to Cheadle’s acting style, I feel, is his earnestness. I’ve never seen him play out of character (even when he should, like in Iron Man 2). His Alan is no different. Our protag is solid; all the conflicts Alan faces—from a crisis at work to his straining marriage to helping Charlie—are handled in a candid manner, with Cheadle working the plain, but pretty good and clever. I’ll give Binder’s direction that much—dialogue with utmost conviction and sympathy. Cheadle is as reliable as ever in Reign. At the end of the day—or movie—solid acting is more important than “good” acting regarding Reign. Good acting is subjective, but a guy like Cheadle is dependable enough to give the audience the proverbial “goods.”

However, what’s also reliable in Reign is Sandler’s usual histrionics. Those five things I listed above about fixtures in Sandler’s comedies? Welp, they’re all present and accounted for here. All in all though, regarding Sandler’s performance, it’s nice to see the guy try and sort of stretch himself as an actor. But even here in Reign, Sandler gives us his usual man-child schtick, albeit wrapped in a veil of “maturity.” In another movie, in another light, Charlie would be no different than Billy Madison. Think about it: Charlie as PTSD victim. He wraps himself up with his video games, record collection and drumkit. Whenever he gets mildly agitated, he screams and tears about. He has this fetish for root beer. He even ogles women with no shame (and isn’t Charlie a guy who supposedly misses his wife more than anything in the world?). In the context of Charlie it works it fits and starts, but when you think about it, it’s still Sandler doing Sandler.

And the hell of it all, I liked Sandler as Charlie. For real. Here’s a role where Sandler’s gig was actually put to some good use. I’ll agree his act is threadbare, and trying it out in a “serious” role was a shaky prospect at best, but you know what they say in storytelling: write what you know. Sandler knows how to be an adolescent goodfball, very well I might add. He just rolled with it in Reign—with mixed results—and it more or less resulted in a Sandler character that was at somewhat sympathetic and tolerable. He even had some good moments, too. Not many, but the few present worked well (e.g.: the therapist’s waiting room scene). So it wasn’t a total wash.


Unlike Cheadle, Sander plays out of character a lot. I blame the writing. The narrative started to get real sloppy by the second act. The seams got frayed, and Charlie vacillated between disturbed and surprisingly lucid (all this from reconnecting with Alan? And wait. Going to therapy? Just like that?). I’m no expert, but Charlie eventually appears to be suffering from more than PTSD, and PTSD isn’t like psychosis, not really. I dislike how mental illness if often portrayed in movies as either being plum crazy or just plain sick. Reign is guilty of that. We know Charlie’s been through some sh*t, but excluding very little backstory, he just comes across as textbook nuts most of the time. Charlie’s inability to relate to anyone (except under certain circumstances) comes and goes at will halfway through the film, surprisingly not for the ever-patient Alan to take note. Seemed rather convenient to me.

Reign is your basic character study/buddy movie, right? Well, it’s mired in arrested (character) development. Both of our leads play children masquerading as adults. Alan is repressed and wants to lead a carefree life like Charlie seems to have. Charlie is unhinged and without a family to ground him—to give his life purpose—and basically retreats to his bedroom and bolts the door. Retreat, both “good” and “bad” is the axis of this movie. That’s the general undercurrent I felt in Reign, and that would be a reliable fulcrum for a story to balance.

But Binder blows it, time and again, with a lot of rambling in a script that never feels balanced. There is the overarching feeling of “play it fast and loose” pervading the entire damn movie. The opening scenes feel rushed in setting up the backstory. The 9/11 tragedies seem more like an inconvenience and/or wallpaper rather than being the movie’s Maguffin. Reign is interspersed with honest pathos but sandwiched between layers of filler—a lot of saccharine filler. The wobbly nature of the script leaves you never really sure of where the film is going. The meandering can become actually jarring, due to its ensuing frustration as the audience gets lost or forgotten about entirely. And a lot of the “message” (whatever it is. Even that ultimately gets confusing. Is it the healing power of friendship? Sympathy for the lost? Sandler can act when he really tries? I couldn’t keep track) gets delivered with ham-fisted empathy via a jumbled plot seemingly thrown together by the third act. By and large, everything feels forced.

I’m feeling that the only reason this movie got any press was that our established goofball Sandler was going to “play it straight” in a rare dramatic role. He didn’t (but tried), and the script betrayed him. Also, and once again, Cheadle got the short shrift. Granted, neither of them did any fart jokes, but both actors were either underused—their talent downplayed—or maybe under the delusion that a film tackling New York 9/11 matters automatically meant playing in Reign was a noble gesture and tribute. Didn’t they read the script before signing on? Could they have?

Call me cynical (no, really), but I think that the only reason Reign got any kind of praise is for employing post-9/11 sympathies on us. If Charlie had been a homeless vet…well, that’s been done before. If it was a role akin to DeNiro in Awakenings…uh, that’s already been done, too. PTSD afflicted guy from the WTC attacks? With Sandler? Hollywood gold!

Hey. Don’t throw the beer cans at me. Aim for Binder.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. This movie is awful. It’s pandering, in poor taste and awful…not unlike the majority of Sandler’s “funny” films. Blech. What a shame.

Stray Observations…

  • “I hated kitchen talk.”
  • I know that yellow diner. Then again, so does half of Manhattan.
  • “Get a new shrink. Get several.”
  • I envy Charlie’s hair. I tried to achieve that kind of mane in my post-punk phase…in 1999. Slap me.
  • “You need some Mel!”
  • Why is Liv Tyler in this movie? She’s not a very convincing shrink. Discuss.
  • “Nobody has the right to look that good.”
  • Admittedly, Quadrophenia is one of my favorite albums.
  • “You don’t like this?” “I don’t like remembering.”
  • (Later, in the third act) Oh, God. Is Burrows still in this movie?
  • “Can we go get Chinese now?”
  • No visible facial wounds from that street…apprehension? Bad editor. Bad, bad editor.
  • “You used to take sh*t from everybody…but you were great at it!”
  • It’s a Madison 23 Production, doubtless a nod to the 23rd anniversary of Sandler’s break throughmovie, Billy Madison. Now stop looking at me, swan.
  • “It’s a kitchen, sweetie.”

Next Installment…

Hey! It’s time for another Kick-Ass comic book movie adaptation! Again! Comic books! All right! Here, at RIORI! Again! We get a lot of ‘em! Yet again! C’mon!


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.