With the View Askewniverse closed off, Kevin Smith turned a fresh page and moved back towards the more conventional storytelling of “Chasing Amy” and if “Die Hard” qualifies as a Christmas movie then so does “Jersey Girl”. Yes – it’s a Christmas movie! Starring Ben Affleck!
Now, Affleck and Christmas Movies haven’t historically been the best bedfellows but fortunately, the festive period is merely the starting point for this semi-autobiographically sentimental meditation on fatherhood and the fundamental priorities of life.
When his wife dies in childbirth, a career-driven widower must look after his newborn daughter but after a professional meltdown abruptly ends his career, he must find a way to rebuild his life and reconnect with those around him.
Once again, Affleck is tasked with being a selfish, unlikeable asshole, and it has to be said he plays it well, but he’s also able to eventually bring it back in the end as Smith brings the story to a sugary sweet happy ending. If you’re looking for the foul-mouthed cynicism of his previous works, you’re going to be disappointed because while the script still features Smith’s trademark ear for dialogue and lackadaisical approach to minding its language, it’s an overtly romantic and sentimental approach as Smith, very much wearing his heart on his sleeve, does his thinking out loud as he ponders becoming a father, having a daughter and everything that brings with it.
While Affleck is arguably a little miscast, he delivers a solid performance, one that’s elevated by the cast around him. Liv Tyler is delightfully beguiling as video store clerk Maya but it’s Raquel Castro as Gertie and George Carlin as her grandad Bart that steal the entire picture out from under everyone else. It’s through them that the familiar story of the career-driven and neglectful parent learning to value what’s really important comes to vibrant life. Castro has wonderful chemistry with everyone in the cast and she’s so irresistibly adorable that the audience remains resentful of Affleck’s character’s detachment far longer and fiercer than you’d otherwise expect and even by the end, you might be left thinking he gets off lightly for being such an asshole, even if the ending does feature a school theatrical performance which is second only to ‘Hamlet’ in “The Addams Family” for sheer entertainment value.
There’s a running joke through the previous five of Smith’s movies that his character, Silent Bob, is a secret softy, a sucker for romance and it’s in “Jersey Girl” that we get to see that in that aspect, Smith and Silent Bob are very much the same. It’s unashamedly gooey, sentimental and ever so slightly corny but if you can find it in your heart to embrace it, it’s a great big warm hug of a movie, and very much an East Coast American version of the very British “Jack & Sarah”.
It’s got something of a reputation as a flop – and even Smith himself often rags on it in a self-deprecating manner – but, to echo Jay’s oft-voiced lament ‘the whole world was against it, dude, I swear to god’. It had the misfortune to be released in the shadow of the tabloid juggernaut of ‘Bennifer’ and suffered terrible (and unfair) collateral damage from the cratering of the previous year’s “Gigli” (“Jersey Girl” was delayed and all trace of Lopez’s presence in the movie was downplayed) but in reality, this is a sweet, deeply personal movie that probably took his slacker fan base off guard and was correspondingly overlooked by the mainstream audience because of his reputation for stoner comedy nonsense. Not for the first time that snobbishness would undervalue Smith’s work and keep it from being appreciated by the wider audience it deserved.