Monday, March 29, 2004

Looking To The Stars: Jersey Girl - A Review

At what point did it become acceptable, to say nothing of common practice, to critique an object without even discussing the object in question directly?

Case in point: out of all the reviews I read for Kevin Smith’s new film “Jersey Girl”, which opened this past weekend, I saw very few which said anything at all about the movie and how it made the reviewer feel. This includes, I mention lest we start making any broad generalizations about my view of the small press and big media, both the mainstream and independent operations.

There was quite a lot about why Ben Affleck is the worst actor in recent memory. A fair spattering about how Jennifer Lopez is in the film briefly and how the two are married in the movie and how funny that is not that they are broken up. There was quite an obscene amount of talk about how Kevin Smith is, alternatively, a total sell-out, a complete hack incapable of making a mainstream movie and a man who has sold out his fanbase in favor of respectability.

While this kind of thing may appeal to the huddled masses of Indie film freaks who quoted “” like bible verse before it became mainstream and accepted by the huddle masses who get their big movie news from “People Magazine” and “Entertainment Weekly”, it fails to tell us anything about the flick itself, the performances of the actors besides the Allmighty Affleck and the feelings it inspired, This was, unless I missed out on some memo from the grand high king of all critics, our fricking jobs!

So for those of you who want to read about how this is the worst movie since “Gigli”, how this wasn’t worth delaying “Spider-Man/Black Cat #4” for (that being the one rather flimsy link I have to justify writing about this movie in a column that usually talks about comics) and how this was the worst movie to come out this weekend EVEN With “Scooby Doo 2”… look elsewhere. I’m going to ignore the whole Ben/J-Lo break-up and all the other crap that strictly speaking has no bearing upon the movie as a movie.

The first question that any Kevin Smith devotee is likely to ask about this movie is how it compares to the others. Simply put, there is no way to compare them. This is completely different from anything than Kevin Smith has ever done before. Oh, there are similarities to be sure… but this is perhaps the most thoughtful and certainly the most mature work he has ever published in any form.

You can say that this is like “Chasing Amy”, but all they have in common is that they are both touching dramas with a lot of funny moments. You can compare it to “Dogma” in terms of depth, but “Jersey Girl” is firmly grounded in reality without any supernatural elements at all. You can liken it to “Clerks” in how they both portray the real-world suburbs of New Jersey, but “Clerks” lacks the deeper emotional thoughtfulness of “Jersey Girl”. You can even compare it to “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back”, but the only “dick and fart jokes” (to quote Kevin Smith himself) involve dirty diapers and little kids “playing doctor”. In fact, the movie I think this most compares to is “Mallrats”, which I shall explain my reasoning for in a moment.

The biggest problem with the media hype around this movie and its’ big stars is that it revealed the big surprise of the film. This is perhaps the greatest tragedy of it, as Smith plays the scene beautifully so that it is a complete surprise to the viewers. I heard audible gasps from some of those around me who either had the good fortune to not hear anything about the movie beforehand or were so overwhelmed by the emotion of the scene that they gasped in spite of themselves.

Regardless, as the trailers for the movie now reveal the surprise indirectly, I can discuss it here without fear of spoilage. Within the first ten minutes, we find out that Ollie and Gertrude (Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez) fell in love, got married and are about to have their first child. Gertrude dies suddenly in childbirth, leaving Ollie alone with a daughter to raise and a career to balance.

Seven years later, little “Gertie” has grown up into the adorable and talented Raquel Castro and Ollie is trying to get his career back to where it was before what I can only call “a forced hiatus” without giving away too much of the story. But with a little help from his father (George Carlin), a cute video store clerk who might becoming more than a friend (Liv Tyler) and his daughter, Ollie realizes what he really wants in life.

I laughed the least at this movie compared to any of Smith’s other works. This is not because it is not funny, but because it is a different kind of funny; the funny jokes that makes you smile and rejoice in your life rather than the “I can’t believe they just did that” shock jokes that fill so many other Smith films.

While the film has much quieter laughs, the laughs that are there are priceless such as the moment in which young Gertie tries to imitate her dad, gesture for gesture, as she gives him the same dressing down for “showing his parts” to a girl he isn’t married to that he gave her. While the laughs were not as frequent as other works, they were much longer lasting.

In contrast, I did become full blown misty-eyed and cried like a baby at three separate moments throughout the film. And whoever arranged the music for this movie deserves an award for their work. Music fills this movie, highlighting practically every scene. And while in a lesser film this might invoke the feeling of a giant music video, it never quite reaches that point here. It seems perfectly natural and completely appropriate that Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” plays in the background as Ollie visits his wife’s grave as he ponders a fight with his daughter

It is in this sense that the film indirectly reminds me of “Mallrats”, for this is very much an “80’s film”. But whereas “Mallrats” was a tribute to the kind of movies that John Hughes made about suburban teenager life, Jersey Girl is closer to the romantic dramas so common to the 80’s that also had a lot of musical moments, like… dare I say it?... Dirty Dancing.

Ben Affleck, as usual, seems to give a much better performance here than he does in the big Hollywood productions that he does when he isn’t working with Smith. Take my opinion with a grain of salt, as I am one of the few people in comic fandom who thought Ben was a competent Matt Murdock, but I think this is easily one of Ben’s best performances ever and his best one under Smith’s direction. And the supporting cast match him note for note.

George Carlin is an amazing supporting player, proving the old adage that most comedians make fine actors in any genre. While there is always a danger that comedians can take their lines and make everything a wisecrack, Carlin builds a really deep character in “Pop”, who is equally able to dote on his granddaughter and give his son a dressing down for his selfish attitude. Rest assured though comedy fans, that Carlin does get to crack wise as well but overall proves himself as worthy of an Oscar nomination as other comedians gone dramatic like Robin Williams and Bill Murray.

Liv Tyler also is given a chance to shine like never before. I’ve been a big fan of Liv since “Stealing Beauty” and it was nice to see her given something more substantial than standing around and looking tormented, yet inhumanly beautiful as in “The Lord of the Rings”. Her “Mya” invokes the same spirit as other Smith heroines like Alyssa Jones and Gwen Turner, not just for her disarming openness (She’s working on a term paper on the psychological profiles of men who rent pornographic movies) but also in her ability to see through the B.S. that the hero feeds himself and the world.

Raquel Castro is a wonder and just when I think that Smith has gone too far in how many big words he can put into the mouth of a seven year old girl, she does something so genuine that I can believe that she writes the very intelligent speech about her family that opens the movie. The running gag regarding her always forgetting to flush the toilet as well…her wanting to see the same movie over and over… her wanting do the same musical as all her friends for the upcoming school pageant… all of this smacks of real little girl behavior. And as I recall the words of my local film critic, who loudly protested the validity of a talent show where every other girl is performing “Memory” from “Cats”, I wonder how many talent shows HE has been too lately where half the elementary-age girls in the dance contest are performing “Oops, I Did It Again?” Not bloody many, I’d guess.

And to my surprise, Jennifer Lopez does a good job in her brief time on the screen. I will go so far as to say that this is perhaps the most genuine acting I have ever seen from her… although that’s not saying much as I tried to gouge my eyes out after “The Cell.” Still, for all those who criticized her lack of acting ability in… well, pretty much anything, I challenge you to watch the scene of her, several months pregnant, getting ready for a party and bursting into tears as Ollie berates her for waiting until the last minute and marvel not only at her sudden apparent talent but also at Smith’s ability to write a more truthful depiction of married life than you will see in many films.

Indeed, Smith’s greatest gift as a writer and a filmmaker is his ability to capture the essential truth in any situation. His earliest works did this, honestly portraying the lives of the 20-something men in the awkward man-child phase. The years most college-age men go through where they struggle to achieve manhood while avoiding turning into a grown-up. “Clerks” was practically a documentary of this phenomena as well as a message film. “Clerks” was ultimately a man stuck in a rut because it was more comfortable to lie in the gutter and than to try reach for the stars.

And if “Clerks” taught us about the need to try for something better in our lives, then “Mallrats” was about how to fight for what we have. “Chasing Amy”, in contrast, shows the dangers of questioning the good that comes your way and looking gift horses in the mouth. “Dogma” teaches the importance of general faith and how . Even “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” had a message of sorts, though the message was more about why Jay is not a role-model

What then is the message of Jersey Girl? To quote Robert Burns, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Jersey Girl’s message is that in spite of things not going the way we want them to, sometimes things turn out better than we plan.

I fear this message may be all but lost in the all the Sturm und Drang of the media machine that has surrounded this movie and will likely continue so long as it is in theaters. But those of us who can take joy in the idea of “God, That’s Good” from “Sweeny Todd” being performed before the audience of a private Catholic school will find something much more valuable and enjoyable here than gossip and trash-talk.

Final Score: 9.0 out of 10.0.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

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