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Jersey Girl

With a track consisting of the bomb that was Mallrats, the indie uphill battle for Chasing Amy, the Catholic League protested Dogma, and the fan-centric Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, it seems that Kevin Smith may never be able to release a film without facing some form of public spectacle.

Consider his latest film, Jersey Girl. First it was minor skepticisms surrounding a quieted shift in release date to avoid pitting the jersey shore family drama up against the third and final film in The Matrix trilogy. At the time this seemed like a wise move, but I wonder if Smith would opt to open his meager drama piece against the sci-fi behemoth as originally planned if he were given the opportunity.

Hindsight is always favorable, and the "Wachowski Paycheck" looked to be the biggest obstacle on the radar for Smith. That is until the aftermath of hurricane Bennifer and the a-bomb that was the failure of Gigli sucked all interest out of the two performers, and left Smith back at square one with a film that seemed less desirable than a sequel to Carrot Top's debut film Chairman of the Board.

Suddenly his decision to "step away" from his "Askewniverse" and let his two staple characters, Jay and Silent Bob, sit out this venture into a more sentimental exploration of relationships looked like it might prove Smith's downfall. Or maybe not.

One look at Rotten Tomatoes will attest that the critical onslaught has successfully detracted from the film to the point of reducing it to nothing more than schlock clichéd trite. So much has been made of its supposed predictability and hackneyed portrayal of single parenthood that the film would appear to be destined for failure.

That's sad, because Smith has carved out a message in Jersey Girl that is so refreshingly real and unique that it deserves to be seen even if it isn't the greatest cinematic achievement in film history. Besides, this film was never intended for spectacle. Contrivances aside, the point here is less about where and how the characters end up physically as it is concerned with where and how they land emotionally.

Affleck's Ollie Trinke is a single father forced to raise his daughter after his wife Gertie (Lopez) dies during childbirth. Had the film been released at a different time, the impact of this moment would have been devastating, but now Smith has to battle publicly just to get viewers and critics to embrace these two as characters, not as former power couple Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez.

Smith employs some tried and true tropes that we've all seen before to accomplish his means, yet he does so in a fashion meant to drive the characters because these things happen to real people. Smith makes these moments his own, redefining them in memorable ways enough to set them aside from previous visitations in lesser films.

Things work out for the Trinke clan, but not before Ollie learns a lesson that reaches far deeper than the typical romantic comedy denouement. This is due, in part, to the fact that these characters have depth beyond their typical counterparts. Ollie's relationship with his daughter Gertie is completely believable, due in part to Affleck's willingness to open up emotionally while at the same time applying some of the wit (with help from Smith's dialogue and humor) and charm that made him famous to begin with.

Raquel Castro is a fine find as far as child actors are concerned. Don't let the chin tapping images from the TV spots fool you, she comes across as your typical seven year old, eager to understand the adult world, willing to say whatever comes to mind, and unrelenting when eying hypocrisy. Their bond is authentic and never stoops to typical childlike cuteness.

The real accolades should go to Liv Tyler and George Carlin. Liv excels as Maya, a Kevin Smith dream girl who starkly resembles his own wife, Jennifer Schwalbach-Smith (who herself cameos). Liv is very free and open in the role, not stiff, rigid, or even uncomfortable, as she has appeared in previous films. Carlin in the same regard is phenomenal as Ollie's father Bart. He is natural, curt, and surprisingly sympathetic in a role that, like Liv's, is usually reserved for two dimensional character developments in films such as these. Instead we are treated to real developments that do not feel forced or undeserved.

For years Smith has been haggard by critics over his visual style, or better yet, lack thereof. Jersey Girl is a very obvious attempt by Kevin to step up his role as a director, and this is not a wasted effort. Under the tutelage of Oscar winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, Kevin's latest is a startling contrast to his other films.

This is not to say that Smith has found his voice visually. He has always had a discernable style when it comes to his writing, but he still lacks a distinct aesthetic style that defines his films (other than the aforementioned lack of visual style). Jersey Girl is a step in the right direction, but I still look forward to seeing him develop a design all his own to match his prowess with the written word.

As far as fanboy response is concerned, whether critics like to admit it or not, Jersey Girl is pure Smith. All of the elements are there, snappy dialogue, heartfelt sentiment, and the grade school obsession with sexual innuendo. These all flourish in the film to surprising results despite its rating.

Ignore the claims of overt use of saccharine sentiment, clichéd predictability, and just open up to the film instead. You'll find that the real shock here is how good it actually is underneath all the negative hype.


Mario Anima

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