Has fatherhood tamed, civilized, and domesticated Kevin Smith? Or has a daily routine of cleaning up after his baby and changing her diapers given the director of Clerks and Dogma new ideas for his special brand of coarse humor? The answer to both questions is "yes."

In many ways, Jersey Girl is a typical Kevin Smith movie, from the celebrity cameos and Star Wars references to the abundant four-letter words and Catholic imagery. But in several other ways, the film marks an interesting departure for Smith. It is his first PG-13 film, and it is the first of his movies that does not feature the sex-obsessed pothead Jay or his sidekick Silent Bob. It is also the first of Smith's films since the boy-meets-lesbian romance Chasing Amy (1997) that aspires to something resembling genuine human drama—and, at times, despite Smith's weaknesses as a filmmaker, Jersey Girl is actually quite touching. If this film is marked by anything, it is by Smith's love for his daughter, and for his family.

Ben Affleck and Raquel Castro

Ben Affleck and Raquel Castro

Off-screen love of another sort is captured in the film's opening scenes. Ben Affleck, who has been in every Smith film since 1995's Mallrats, plays Ollie Trinke, a successful Manhattan-based music publicist who falls in love with and marries Gertrude Steiney, played by Jennifer Lopez—Affleck's real-life girlfriend-at-the-time. It is, of course, pretty much impossible to watch their scenes together as though all the tabloid coverage had never happened (just as it is impossible to hear Lopez's character worry about appearing fat next to famous singers without remembering that Lopez is one herself), but seeing these two characters go at it is still a little like watching two friends make out in the middle of a party;—you feel like telling them to get a room. Then again, knowing that their love is doomed in real life does give their fictitious movie romance a certain poignancy.

And what doom it is. Gertrude dies of an aneurysm while giving birth to their daughter, Gertie. At first, Ollie copes by burying himself in his work, while leaving Gertie in the care of his grumpy father Bart (George Carlin). But eventually Bart forces Ollie to look after the child himself, and the stress of balancing work and family ultimately prompts Ollie to make some spontaneous, vicious, and career-killing remarks at a public press conference. His reputation in ruins, Ollie moves to his father's home in New Jersey, takes a job cleaning streets like his dad, and commits himself to being the best dad ever to his daughter.

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The film then jumps ahead several years. Gertie (Raquel Castro, who is so believable as J-Lo's daughter, you wonder which actress was cast first) now goes to a Catholic school and dreams of putting on a musical, while Ollie wishes he could somehow get back into the publicity business. And because Ollie has not had sex with anyone since Gertie's mother died, he rents porn—until the day a video clerk named Maya (Affleck's Armageddon co-star Liv Tyler) blackmails him into becoming a subject for a paper she's writing on the subject. When, during their first interview, Maya discovers that Ollie has not had sex in seven years, she tells him he needs to get "back on the horse," and she immediately goes back to his place for some quick, casual, no-strings-attached sex—which is promptly interrupted when Gertie comes home.

Liv Tyler, Raquel Castro, Ben Affleck

Liv Tyler, Raquel Castro, Ben Affleck

Maya is not so much a character in her own right as she is a male fantasy figure, but even so, Smith does use their romance, such as it is, to make some pertinent moral points, in his usual non-judgmental manner. When seven-year-old Gertie catches her dad and Maya in their underwear, she chastises them for doing something that Dad himself told her only married people should do.

The fling with Maya is ultimately just a subplot, though. The real love story here is between father and daughter, and even though Smith throws in some abrupt mood changes and falls back on some stock movie clichés—yes, when the protagonist has to rush somewhere in time for the film's heart-tugging climax, he will be obliged to abandon his car by an obstacle in the road and run the remaining distance on foot—the sincere feeling between Ollie and Gertie still transcends the movie's formulaic conventions. Affleck is quite obviously at ease in this down-to-earth drama in a way that he never seems to be in his action movies, and Castro seems like a genuine child instead of like a child actor—she is smart but not too smart, cute but not too cute. (Gertie does occasionally use grown-up words like "subtle," but for the perfectly plausible reason that Ollie teaches them to her.)

This is also probably the best-looking Kevin Smith film ever, thanks to the cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond (an Oscar winner for Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Smith himself has admitted in the past that dialogue is his forté, and that he has no particular visual sensibility—he is a stark exception to Robert Johnston's observation, in Reel Spirituality, that Catholic filmmakers tend to be driven by image, and Protestants by word. So, both as a filmmaker and as a person, this movie marks an interesting stage in Smith's growth. It should be interesting to see what he comes up with next.

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Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. How does becoming a parent change one's view of parents? Of children? Is it easier to be a parent because you remember what it was like to be a child? What if, like Ollie, you are a parent and a child at the same time, living with both your father and your daughter? Does becoming a grandparent change a parent?

  2. How does God act in our lives like a parent (for example, through his love and authority)? How does he act in our lives like a child (for example, by surprising us with unexpected gifts of grace)?

  3. Is there a difference between watching pornography and having casual sex? Is sex ever really casual? What do you think of a relationship like the one between Ollie and Maya, beginning with the idea that sex and commitment are two completely separate things?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

There's plenty of profanity (lots of s-words and the taking of Jesus' name in vain, and one f-word), and has frank talk about sex, pornography, and diaper changing. A newborn baby is covered in the usual goop. A seven-year-old boy and girl show each other their private parts, but nothing is seen onscreen. An adult couple strip down to their underwear but no further.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 04/01/04

Kevin Smith's latest comedy Jersey Girl is earning some mainstream attention because it is not quite so crass as his previous films (Clerks, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.) It stands out from the others for the way Smith's convictions about the importance of family and fatherhood shine through. But even though it tells a pro-family story, it is definitely not a family film.

When a proud New York publicist (Ben Affleck) loses his wife and his job in quick succession, he finds himself devastated and frustrated. His daughter Gertie (Raquel Castro) needs her father, but he's too busy trying to salvage his career. Eventually, the interference of his father (George Carlin) and a sexually aggressive video store clerk (Liv Tyler) bring him around to a better perspective on life, love, and fatherhood.

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says the film is "actually quite touching. In many ways, Jersey Girl is a typical Kevin Smith movie, from the celebrity cameos and Star Wars references to the abundant four-letter words and Catholic imagery. But in several other ways, the film marks an interesting departure for Smith. If this film is marked by anything, it is by Smith's love for his daughter, and for his family."

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"Jersey Girl may seem cute and harmless, but parents should be very careful and hesitant about letting their children see this one," says Jonathan Rodriguez (Christian Spotlight). He also notes, "Kevin Smith is quite simply a director one either loves or hates."

Actually, there are other responses to Kevin Smith films. Several critics give Smith's way of filmmaking a mixed review. Personally, I find myself conflicted over each film Smith produces. I admire the basic moral lessons his stories offer. In this film, he wears his heart on his sleeve so boldly that he's being accused of "selling out" and "sentimentalism." In spite of the excessive sex talk and the lapses into sap, I found myself won over by his characters and his convictions. But I do hope he eventually learns that he can hold our attention by telling stories about characters with a more mature and responsible view of sexuality. (My full review is at Looking Closer.)

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says the movie is "funny, with several touching moments, but often crude and profane."

Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "Jersey Girl could have been a great movie. Many of its lessons are positive. Marriage is important. Being a good parent is important. Respecting your parents is important. Loyalty is important. Sex is only for marriage. Regrettably, Smith forgot one other important lesson: be consistent in what you communicate."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) offers many unsupported assumptions and her review devolves into a character assassination of Smith: "If this is the best that this Jersey boy can do, he can fuhgeddaboutit. It would appear that his lifestyle has warped his brain so much that he doesn't even know how to make a decent movie anymore. There is help, Kevin. But until you get it, don't try to pass this kind of perversion off as a good film."

She also asserts that Smith "doesn't like Christianity." That's an interesting claim, since Dogma was Smith's attempt to present—albeit in the form of a satire—his convictions about faith. Smith has spoken out against certain aspects of organized religion that he finds unfulfilling, but to say he "doesn't like Christianity" seems a bit of an overstatement.

Jersey Girl
Our Rating
2½ Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for language and sexual content including frank dialogue)
Directed By
Kevin Smith
Run Time
1 hour 42 minutes
Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Raquel Castro
Theatre Release
March 26, 2004 by Miramax
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