There is something deeply odious about Kevin Smith’s films (Mallrats , Dogma ). Is it their tendency draw almost every dramatic and comic situation from the bottomless well of pop culture cliché? This is not necessariy or immediately a bad thing. But Smith’s movie-world is the kind in which pregnant women get tearfully hysterical over the slightest comment, and scream their lungs out on the delivery table; in which blokes bond over booze and action movies; in which moppet-kids represent the life-force.
Smith, in short, never seems to get within hailing distance of lived reality – not unless it is has been pre-processed in a thick, gooey vat of received, conservative opinions about the way people act in typical or supposedly universal situations. (Remember, this is the guy who once said that he begs off seeing films with subtitles because Jim Jarmusch “filiters that stuff for me in his movies”.) But Smith is unable, like his confrère Quentin Tarantino (another exponent of the hyper-talky indie film), to make a virtue of such ersatz storytelling.
When Smith’s characters are hanging out in a shopping mall trading one-liners about comic books and superheroes, this superficiality is forgivable. He has never bettered Clerks (1994), his rough and ready debut, because he wisely kept within the strict circumfrence of that brittle bubble. But when this filmmaker aims for one from the heart, as he does in Jersey Girl, the results can be painfully embarrassing. This film cheapens the memory of Chasing Amy (1997), his more successful (albeit still pretty confused) effort in such a direction.
All Smith’s films are, at some level, autobiographical – providing a gruesome portrait of one nerd’s upward mobility through an increasingly vacuous world of showbiz celebrity. Jersey Girl hinges on a curious premise: his imagining of what his life would have been like if his wife had not survived the act of giving birth to their child, leaving him as the sole parent. What lifestyle change would such an event necessitate?
If it seems to you that there is already a repressed note of resentment or hostility in Smith’s fantasy-premise, you are ready for the oddest and least pleasant undercurrents of Jersey Girl. Indeed, the whole movie builds to a moment in which Smith’s favourite alter ego, Ben Affleck as public relations expert Ollie, explodes in front of his little, cutesy-pie daughter, Gertie (Raquel Castro), confessing that he blames both her and his wife, Gertrude (Jennifer Lopez), for taking his life away.
Although Smith seems hardly aware of the fact, he is here stirring memories of a Frank Capra classic, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). As in that film, the challenge driving the story is to make the average (but ambitious) guy accept his modest lot in life, and his lowly place in the social status quo.
In Jersey Girl, this translates into Ollie’s need – endlessly impressed upon him by his salt-of-the-earth Dad, Bart (George Carlin) – to finally give up the ghost of being a young, high-flying single man, and embrace the responsibilities of child-rearing and an honest, working-class job.
Sadly, almost nothing in this film is convincing on any level. When in doubt, Smith wheels in the pop culture gags – a laboriously set-up cameo for Will Smith is the movie’s lowpoint – or lets rip with his favourite middlebrow rock, even to the point of comparing his hero’s pathos with Bruce Springsteen’s lament for “9/11” New York in “My City of Ruins”.
In fact, one can easily follow the lineaments of Smith’s clichéd imagination in his generally gruesome selection of songs and his unerringly predictable decisions about where to put them. In Jersey Girl, this damage includes Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” for a reflective wistful passage, and Pete Townsend’s “Let My Love Open the Door” for the redemptive upbeat.
Only one element saves Jersey Girl: Liv Tyler. Her character, Maya, is the sort of male fantasy only Smith would dare project onto a screen: a supreme tomboy who can drink beer and make outrageous cracks about masturbation or porn while winsomely fluttering her eyelids and offering a “mercy hump” to cure Ollie of his long-enforced celibacy.
Miraculously, Tyler renders this character with total believability and charm. It is only a pity that she, too, must stand for the sacred status quo that our hero transgresses at his peril.
© Adrian Martin August 2004