Wednesday, September 11, 2019

I Finally Watched Jersey Girl

Introduction to the series
Clerks review
Mallrats review
Chasing Amy review
Dogma review
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back review

In what world is this movie a bomb?

Those were the words I wrote on my steno pad after watching this film. Five pages of notes, the most during this Kevin Smith journey. There was so much to love with this movie provided a viewer knows one thing: this is not part of the then five-film View Askew Universe. This is a standalone story about a single dad coming to grips with how much his life changed after the simultaneous birth of his daughter and the death of his wife.

Preconceived Ideas

Like I mentioned during my write-up for Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, I stopped checking the Wikipedia article partway through that film so I wouldn't spoil the surprise of the various cameos. I didn't even open the Wikipedia page for this film other than to look up the name of the young actress who plays Ben Affleck's daughter in this movie. It's Raquel Castro by the way. And I didn't watch the trailer until after the movie, so I wasn't prepared for what happens in this film.

To see Affleck and Jennifer Lopez in this movie was natural to me. I mean, I remember they dated for a time, but couldn't even recall if they'd gotten married or not. (Just dated, I've since re-remembered.) Of course writer/director Kevin Smith would hire Affleck's girlfriend for the role of his wife...and what the hell just happened! Are you kidding me? Jennifer Lopez's character dies in this movie?

Yup. A fact I would have known had I watched the trailer. See how much fun it is to go into a movie blind and just let the story wash over you? We should all try it sometime.

But back to my preconceived ideas about this film. I remember it bombing and, as I write this without looking it up, I seem to recall Jersey Girl and Gigli both bombing. (Just checked: yup) In my recent re-listening to Smith's old Fat Man on Batman podcast episodes, I was listening to him and Marc Bernardin doing commentary for the 1989 Batman movie. But the introduction to that episode was Smith talking about the then casting of Affleck as Batman/Bruce Wayne for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (still a bad title, especially when you have to type it). Smith retold a moment when Affleck emailed Smith to give the director the heads up that magazines would be wanting comments.

"Don't mention Jersey Girl," Affleck implored.

After Smith summarized his glowing thoughts about the actor, Affleck simply repeated what he had said.

Let me return to my initial statement: In what world did this film bomb?

The Prelude

Every story must begin with a "Here's where the main character is now" sequence of scenes. It's December 1994. Affleck plays Ollie Trinke, a famous New York publicist. His wife is Lopez's Gertie, a book editor. At a party early on, a pregnant Gertie complains she's so fat when compared to all the young, thin ladies who'll be at the party. "They're all just coked-out whores," Ollie assures her. "I want to be a coked-out whore," is her comeback.

Naturally, with Ollie being all involved with work, he misses things like lamaze classes, but he's there for the birth of their daughter. But he's roughly shoved out of the surgical room when Gertie faints, and then dies.

This was the first of many moments in which my waterworks started. I am a husband and a dad. I was in the delivery room the entire time when my boy was born. With allowances by the doctor, I delivered my child, cut the cord, and held him first. I know how precious life is, and how many things can go wrong during a delivery, including the health of the mother. That we three got through that day safe and healthy is a blessing from God. I cannot imagine the anguish real people endure when something goes wrong, so it is no surprise Ollie doesn't deal with it very well either.

But let's be honest: at first, Ollie as a dad is a dick. Him passing his crying daughter to his Pop (the great George Carlin) was probably understandable. Ollie was still in his Old World. Right up until the press event in which Will Smith who, in 1994, is still more famous for being the Fresh Prince on TV and is breaking out into music and movies. Ollie's harried assistant, Arthur Brickman (Jason Biggs), and Ollie try to get the young Gertie to stop crying. Eventually, Ollie has to take his baby up on stage, only to be faced with a chanting, hungry press corps who only want Will Smith. Ollie tells the hoard exactly what he thinks of them and Will Smith.

You know what happens next. Ollie is fired. He moves out of his fancy apartment in New York and back to New Jersey, moving in with his dad. Pop is happy to have his granddaughter so close, but he grows increasingly pissed at his damaged son who is trying to get another job in New York as a publicist. We all know where this goes.

But not before a fantastic monologue by Ollie to his infant daughter. His world has crashed. He's lost his wife, and his daughter is the only thing in the world that is a living, breathing part of his wife. As Ollie's tears flowed, this dad's tears also flowed. "Your mom would have really liked to have met you," he says. Again, as a dad, meeting my child was a profound experience. It seems Ollie finally realizes it, too.

Enter Raquel Castro

The movie's middle act is a joy because Gertie, now aged seven, is played not by a stunt baby but a young Raquel Castro. I can imagine most every movie in which actors, both young and old, who play parents and children develop a certain amount of chemistry. Affleck and Castro (who was eight or nine during filming) definitely have it.

Ollie is now a New Jersey city sanitation worker with his dad and his dad's pals, Greenie and Block. He picks up Gertie in the street cleaner, dubbed the Batmobile. Their life is grand. Sure, he may not have his old job, but he seems happy and his daughter is happy and well adjusted. Castro delivers Smith's dialogue like it's her own, and she's a wonderful foil to both Affleck and Carlin.

Enter the Romantic Sub-Plot

Being a single dad, naturally there was going to be the other woman in Ollie's life. It turns out to be Maya (Liv Tyler), a female version of Randal from Clerks. That is, she works in a video store. Surprisingly, there are not long asides discussing movies, which is another indication writer/director Smith is branching out to do something different. I can imagine the writing process being something akin to writing said diatribes only to excise them later, realizing they don't fit this film.

The pair meet when Ollie tries to quickly purchase a porn tape ahead of his daughter's kiddie picture. Maya starts quizzing Ollie until he reveals he's a widower. That kills the mood instantly, but she tries to make up for it by going to his house and asking him out for lunch. "For her research," she tells him, but the way she's tripping all over herself drives home the point she's smitten. She carries this through all the way to their lunch when they discuss Ollie's sexual habits. He's not been with a woman since his wife died.

An incredulous Maya blurts out, "You're rather hang out with your kid than get laid?" "Yeah," Ollie replies. The shock on Maya's face is priceless. It's one of my favorite moments in the movie. You see, for me, when I became a dad, a switch was flipped in my brain. No longer was my life purely my own. Now, there was another human being who would rely on me for the rest of his life. Just like I do with my own dad. I appreciate how Smith, then a father for something like five years, slipped in this truth to his movie. This is a more mature Smith who is speaking from the heart, and putting the joy and love and craziness of being a parent in his story. The younger Smith wouldn't have done this because the younger Smith didn't know. Heck, Maya didn't know, either.

The Non-Consummation

I honestly was shocked when Ollie and Maya are next seen in his dad's house, excitedly going at it. We all knew the scene would be interrupted by either Pop or Gertie, and it was his daughter who prevented the consummation. In a brilliant bit of reversal, layered into the film in small moments earlier on, it is Gertie forgetting then remembering to flush the toilet that outs her dad. Then we have the reversal of the "What are your intentions?" moment that Ollie gave Gertie when he caught her with a young boy, each showing their privates parts. Now, it's Gertie sitting her dad and Maya down to have the same talk.

The Dick Version of Ollie Returns

Look, I know this is a drama so  there has to be drama. And the story is all the better for it. But I honestly thought Ollie had changed in seven years. Nope. The old Ollie returns after he meets with his old assistant, Brickman, and the younger man agrees to talk up Ollie to his bosses. In Ollie's mind, he's back in. He'll be able to move back to the city, get Gertie in a great private school, they can see Broadway shows all the time. It'll be just like it used to be.

For Ollie.

Not for Gertie.

A giant fight ensues, in front of Maya, Pop, Greenie, and Block. They're practicing for the talent show. Of course the interview is on the same day as the performance. Of course Ollie pulls the dad card. Of course he inadvertently (?) insults his dad's profession. I knew that stuff was going to happen. But I never expected Ollie to yell, "You and mommy took my life away and I just want it back!"

A f-bomb left my mouth in a whisper at that moment. I wrote it out on my notepad. And as charming as Castro is in every other part of the film, she looked truly crushed at those words. Affleck realizes the shattering words he's just said, but his daughter slams her bedroom door in his face.

Again, as a dad, I've said  and done some crappy things--not to this extent--that I wished I could go and take back, but I can't. Neither can Ollie. His pain in this short montage, accompanied by Bruce Springsteen's "My City of Ruins," is heartbreaking, especially when he sits at his dead wife's grave and cries.

I was genuinely touched by these scenes, but lost it when Ollie and Gertie finally talk. Ollie implores Gertie to believe that he didn't mean the things he said. "Neither did I," Gertie replies. There's something profound when your child forgives you for a crappy thing you said or did. It humbles you like few things in this world. It humbles Ollie, especially when she gives him her permission to miss the show for his interview.

The Big Decision

There's a trope in just about all these kinds of films, and it works most every time. A character is at a crossroads between two decisions. The character knows what he wants to do and should do, but so often, numbly goes through the motions of the wrong road before being turned around by something external. That trope is on full display here, and I had zero problem with it.

Sitting in the waiting room for his interview, none other than Will Smith shows up. Natch. Will Smith and Ollie chat, but the conversation zeroes in on being a dad. Loved Will's line about Gertie's name: "Why you do that to that kid?" But it's Will's description of his daily life that finally cracks open Ollie's thick head. Will always tells his kid he loves them all the way to the moon and back to the dirt. When Ollie gets up to do the other main trope--run to his real self--Will asks him why. "I'm just a guy who'd rather play in the dirt with his kid."

Smiles and all the feels.

The Big Ending

I knew where this was going from the moment Ollie started driving. You did, too. And dang if it isn't as heartwarming as you'd expect it to be. The street construction Ollie convinced the town it needed naturally slowed his progress by car, so he has to run to the school. Will he make it in time to watch the performance? Of course. In fact, he's so on time that he's even able to slip into costume and perform--like they rehearsed all along--with his daughter. If the anguish on Castro's face earlier in the film is one side of the emotional coin, then the bright-eyed ebullient sense of joy on her face upon seeing her dad performing with her is the other side. More feels, man. All of them.

One trope not taken was Maya and Ollie instantly kissing in the bar as they all celebrated after the show. In just about every movie, you'd have Maya's character kiss Ollie and lock in their relationship. Not this time. She says "I'll think about it," the 'it'  being a date with Ollie.

But this movie belonged to Ollie and Gertie, Affleck and Castro. In a movie full of sentiment, one small act really got me. When Ollie picks up Gertie to dance, she runs her hand over his face. It's an intimate gesture and conveys so much. I'm not sure if director Smith suggested it or Affleck or if Castro herself did it, but it is so good.

The Verdict

Loved this movie. I think this is the longest review I've written. I took five pages of notes, so it's already the most number of notes taken.

Let me circle back around to my opening statement: In what world is this movie a bomb? Was it Smith's fans who didn't cotton to a non-View Askew Universe film? Did they want another Jay and Silent Bob movie only? If you factor in my own preconceived notions about Smith films, then the answer has to be partially yes.

My wife offered a different take. It was the public's exhaustion with Affleck and Lopez and/or Affleck and Jennifer Garner. I just scanned Affleck's Wikipedia entry and this movie is under the sub-head 2003–2005: Career downturn and tabloid notoriety". According to the entry, Jersey Girl is part of the problem, especially coming on the heels of Gigli.

So, if I understand correctly, Jersey Girl suffered not from in-movie acting and writing but from external pressures, be they tabloid, critics, public perception, and fan reaction. Really? Is the movie going public that shallow?

Sometimes. Now that I'm doing all this Kevin Smith research, I've learned Mallrats didn't hit big upon release, but gained a following in the years since. I'm proof positive because I loved that film.

When is it Jersey Girl's turn?

No comments: