For many people, including my 18-year-old self, watching Kevin Smith’s grungy 1994 debut Clerks was empowering. It almost single-handedly democratized the filmmaking process long before digital cameras made it possible for anyone with a few thousand bucks, a story, and some excess moxie to make (though not necessarily release) a film.
Just as the Sex Pistols famously inspired countless angry young people to think “I could do that” en route to getting a guitar and forming a band, Smith’s film inspired scores of young men and women to pick up a camera, call up some friends, and make their own low-budget indies. Of course, learning three chords and screaming about your contempt for authority figures doesn’t make you Steve Jones or Johnny Rotten. The Sex Pistols’ music only seemed easy. Part of the group’s artistry entailed making it look artless.
With its casual vibe and low-fi aesthetic, Clerks made filmmaking look similarly easy. Smith’s film seemed to lower the cost of entry for aspiring filmmakers in a good way. Clerks was the ultimate hangout movie; its success suggested that you didn’t need a plot, fancy camera moves, or professional actors to make a movie that would catch Hollywood’s attention. All you needed was some friends, a little money, and some lively banter.
Kevin Smith’s persona as a rumpled everyman, the auteur next door, made filmmaking seem accessible to everyone and anyone. Like Adam Sandler, he was one of us, a New Jersey guy who made it big but never forgot where he came from. He quickly developed a cult that made him bigger than the movies he made. Even people who don’t like Smith’s films are often entertained by his antics. He became a one-man industry, opening up comic-book stores, producing films and television shows, writing comics, hosting a popular podcast, popping up regularly to do bits on Jay Leno, writing books, and generally releasing a never-ending stream of product.
Smith was only 24 when he released Clerks, and he’s grown up in public over the last 16 years. He’s made films of honorable ambition and scope, like the sometimes clumsy but honest, insightful Chasing Amy, and the ambitious but muddled religious satire Dogma. He’s also regressed with projects like Mallrats and Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back.
In 2004, he attempted another big leap forward in his halting evolution when he secured a relatively big budget, big stars (his old buddy Ben Affleck commanded a $10 million salary alone), and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who was famous for Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, The Deer Hunter, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. No grainy black and white this time! The project: a PG-13, family-friendly romantic comedy called Jersey Girl.
It was an audacious move. Smith was still best known as a raunchy, profane, pop-culture-crazed smartass, so romantic comedies filled with adorable children weren’t exactly his area of expertise. He had made a film the belligerent slackers of Clerks might have sneered at dismissively. Critics and audiences weren’t kind.
The film received such a poor reception that, in typical fashion, Smith turned its failure into a self-deprecating joke: In the credits for Clerks II (a film many saw as the Jersey Girl antidote, though it had a soft, squishy center as well), he thanked Jersey Girl for “taking it so hard in the ass and never complaining.” At the very least, Jersey Girl deserves credit for its selfless attitude toward being the subject of violent sodomy.
Jersey Girl was fucked by timing. When the film was released in 2004, costars Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez had emerged as the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn of onscreen couples no one wanted to see, and Affleck’s career was approaching an all-time low. I think Affleck is a talented writer, director, and actor who redeemed himself with his terrific directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, and revelatory character-actor turns in Hollywoodland and Extract. But in 2004, we as a culture wanted to punch him in the face. It wasn’t a noble or justifiable instinct, but emotions often don’t make sense, and at the height of his infamy, Affleck inspired hatred disproportionate to his ostensible transgressions against cinema.
For a brief while, it appeared that Affleck starred in every terrible movie, though it’s important to remember that it only felt that way. His post-Good Will Hunting, pre-comeback résumé is littered with occasional good movies (Boiler Room, Changing Lanes, arguably Shakespeare In Love), but his bad films were so terrible and so ubiquitous (Daredevil, Forces Of Nature, Bounce, Surviving Christmas) that the true abominations (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Gigli) seemed to count for 15 bad movies apiece.
By 2006, we were so burnt out on Affleck that his vehicle Man About Town went directly to DVD. His career had spiraled out of control. He was forced to humble himself before the Lord and concede that he had a problem: He was addicted to making bad movies. He couldn’t help himself; it was a pathological compulsion.
I like to imagine that sometime in 2005, Affleck’s friends and families staged an intervention to confront this disturbing pathology. In my head, here’s how it all went down:
Gus Van Sant: Okay, Ben. Matt Damon, Jennifer Garner, and that weird bald guy from Intervention who looks like Dr. Phil have all gathered here today to tell you that we love you, we respect you, but we will cut you out of our lives completely unless you address your addiction to making terrible movies.
Affleck: What?! I don’t have an addiction! I can stop any time I want! You’re the ones who have the addiction! Why, right here I have a script for my next blind-superhero movie!
Matt Damon: Dammit, Ben, you’re better than that. You’re an Oscar winner, for fuck’s sake. You need help. You need to go to treatment.
Affleck: I don’t need treatment! I don’t need any of you! I can’t take your shit. I’ve got a meeting with my friends Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer anyway.
Jennifer Garner: Ben, Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer are nobody’s friends. They’re just enabling you. They’re the problem, not the solution. You need to be more like Matt. He actually reads scripts before he agrees to appear in movies. Wouldn’t you like to work with directors like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese and Steven Soderbergh and Anthony Minghella?
Affleck: What? Who? What blind-superhero movies did they direct?
Like pretty much everyone on Intervention, Affleck initially resisted his friends’ impassioned pleas, but eventually relented, though he relapsed occasionally with films like Smokin’ Aces and He’s Just Not That Into You. But back in 2004, Affleck was deep in the throes of his starring-in-bad-films addiction, and Jersey Girl suffered for it creatively and commercially.
We recently did an AVQ&A about actors whose offscreen celebrity makes it impossible for them to disappear into roles. Affleck in Jersey Girl personifies that concept. Pair him with the even-more-distracting Lopez (at least Affleck didn’t afflict us with mediocre dance-pop and ubiquitous music videos) and they become toxic, a pop-culture Three Mile Island.
So it’s fitting that Affleck stars in Jersey Girl as a hotshot who commits professional suicide, but learns to become a man and a father in the aftermath of his show-biz self-destruction. In the early going, Affleck has his hair slicked back with mousse, so we know he’s a prime candidate for redemption. He’s also a publicist, which in films like these is tantamount to being the devil’s more evil brother.
Affleck’s hard-charging flack prioritizes business over family to the extent that when wife Jennifer Lopez dies during childbirth, he all but rushes back to the office afterward. He’s a man utterly divorced from his feelings, a press release in sentient form who embodies all that is shallow, slick, and superficial about New York.
The soulless PR monkey accidentally begins his journey to redemption when he freaks out at a Planet Hollywood press conference. In what might be perceived as a bit of a professional blunder, he publicly, viciously insults the press corps and an actor he’s sure will never make the jump from sitcom star/novelty rapper to movie star: Will Smith, or as he is known throughout Jersey Girl’s first act, The Fresh Prince. The gag is predicated on easy historical irony, though while it’s silly to nitpick the particulars of a film like this, Smith was already a fairly big star by the time of Affleck’s blunder. (It was just before Independence Day, a little film some suspected might do okay business, or slightly better.) Smith had been on a hit TV show for five years, and had already scored a hit with Bad Boys.
In that defining moment, everything changes. After being fired, he travels from cold, cynical, heartless New York to warm, friendly New Jersey, where he moves back in with loveable pops George Carlin and commits himself to being the very best father in the entire world. That’s enough of a redemptive arc for most romantic comedies about blow-dried smoothies who learn what’s really important in life, but Jersey Girl races through it in the first act. Then we skip ahead seven years, but he’s still got a big old Manic Pixie Dream Girl-sized hole in his heart that can only be filled by a magical sprite whose life goal involves cheering up doting, undersexed daddies of adorable moppets.
In a video store with his now 7-year-old daughter, Affleck meets cute/excruciating when he accidentally tries to rent bisexual porn from Liv Tyler. (Incidentally, she has such an otherworldly grace that it’s sometimes difficult to buy her as merely human, let alone believe she’s a New Jersey video-store clerk.) I’m a gentleman who has rented a lot of porn to a lot of people (in the future, I plan to begin the majority of my sentences that way), and I can assure you that in circumstances like that, discretion is a must.
Tyler, however, takes an antithetical approach. She decides to interrogate Affleck about his rental history and attitudes about pornography, not to mention the appropriateness of renting pornography with his daughter nearby. Ah, but Affleck’s video-store humiliation is but the beginning of her fortuitous intrusion into his life.
The prey of Manic Pixie Dream Girls are a passive lot, so Tyler ignores Affleck’s pussyfooting and offers him a pity fuck with the casualness most folks would reserve for a kiss on the cheek after a lukewarm first date, or a parting handshake with someone they’d just met. Tyler offers Affleck everything in one ethereally beautiful package: hot, no-strings-attached sex; an endlessly supportive mother surrogate to his daughter; and something more, if Affleck so chooses. In the Lord Of The Rings movies, Tyler played an elf. In Aerosmith videos, she played the ultimate nymph. Here, she really portrays a creature of pure masturbatory fantasy. Stick her in a Princess Leia slave costume, and she’d fulfill every geek’s fevered desires.
Back in Jersey, Affleck regains his soul and self-worth while being aggressively pursued by a woman of preternatural gorgeousness. But when he unexpectedly uses his dark publicist powers to appease an angry crowd, he realizes he desperately misses his old job and life as a career-obsessed workaholic with no time for family or the finer things in life.
Jersey Girl’s climax is so shameless, it borders on self-parody. Smith seems to be in a mad rush to jam in every romantic-comedy, redemption-movie, and family-film cliché in the book. Our conflicted anti-hero is presented with the kind of clear-cut moral dilemma that’s ubiquitous in these kinds of movies: He can either take a meeting about a big fancy-pants job in New York, or he can prance about alongside his daughter when she performs a number from Sweeney Todd at the big school recital. Will he choose good or evil? Will he take a horrible job that will destroy him spiritually, or prevent a lifetime of emotional trauma by publicly dancing with his daughter? Surely only a surprise guest appearance from Will “The Fresh Prince” Smith can set Affleck straight and send him racing from the evil confines of the NY PR firm (boo! hiss!) to the golden warmth of his daughter’s New Jersey school. But will he make it back in time for his big moment?
Yes. Yes, he will. And at that point, just when it appears Smith has used every timeworn convention and gag in the book, the film piles on such old favorites as the slow clap and a snooty old woman fainting in shock at Affleck and family’s morbid song selection.
To give Smith credit, he fuses raunch and sentimentality far more successfully in Zack And Miri Make A Porno, which I liked, and Clerks II, which I found oddly affecting. It’s brave and borderline noble for Smith to make a film as nakedly, unapologetically sincere as Jersey Girl. It’s a sweetheart of a film, a love letter to fatherhood and his home state. It has a handful of affecting moments, like when Affleck briefly loses his temper and lashes out at his daughter with misplaced rage.
But Smith writes some of the least naturalistic dialogue this side of, well, Gigli. A sentence like “You know, a dumbfounded, mouth-agape look of shock might be construed by some as an editorial crack” (which Affleck says to Tyler in a getting-acquainted diner scene) is less a line of dialogue than a compendium of fancy words (dumbfounded, agape, compendium) no one has ever spoken out loud before.
Before making Jersey Girl, Smith apparently underwent an experimental procedure that temporarily removed his cynicism and self-consciousness. Here at My Year Of Flops Incorporated, we tend to find that both brave and foolhardy. Jersey Girl is so syrupy and personal that picking on it almost feels like critiquing a middle-schooler’s poetry.
I really wanted to like Jersey Girl. I have a soft spot for Smith’s kinder, gentler side, but sweetness will only get you so far. It’s easy to be cynical and snarky and mean. It takes real guts to put your heart on the line like Smith does here. Yet Jersey Girl, a weird little orphan of a movie, marks a crucial step in Smith’s gradual maturation process. I watched Jersey Girl with a dumbfounded expression, my mouth agape with a look of shock that just might be construed by some as an editorial crack about the film’s utter, complete, all-consuming lack of shame.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco