Writer-director Kevin Smith has made a lot of noise about the difficulty of releasing Jersey Girl, a film starring Ben Affleck and (at least initially) Jennifer Lopez, in the wake of Gigli and the couple's public split. Such issues should, of course, be beside the point, particularly when there were other reasons to fear Jersey Girl going in. For one, it comes on the heels of Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back, a film so alarmingly self-indulgent that it might as well have been sent out as an MPEG to Smith's fan base. For another, it's a parenting comedy starring Ben Affleck, making two hours of arched eyebrows and dirty diapers an all-too-plausible worst-case scenario.
The film has plenty of both, but somehow, it all works out anyway. So much more appealing when not saving the world, Affleck stars as a hotshot music publicist who, before the opening credits finish rolling, already seems headed toward a happy ending with Lopez. An aneurysm dispatches Lopez during childbirth, however, leaving Affleck to raise their child alone, save for his hard-drinking New Jersey father (George Carlin) and Carlin's harder-drinking friends (Stephen Root and Mike Starr). Bad turns to worse when a meltdown at a Will Smith press conference sinks Affleck's career, isolating him from his old life. When the film flashes forward seven years, he seems to have picked up the pieces relatively well, joining Carlin's city-maintenance crew and happily picking his daughter (Raquel Castro) up from school in a street sweeper each day, but hopes of resuming life in the big city never seem far from his heart.
Though Smith loses many of his past efforts' familiar trappings—Jay and Silent Bob are now confined to the production-company logo—Jersey Girl plays to Smith's strengths like no film since Clerks. It's never better than when the plot gets discarded and the cast (which also includes Liv Tyler as a fetching video-store clerk) simply hangs out, trades dialogue, and prepares for an age-inappropriate school performance from Sweeney Todd. When the plot gets picked up, it moves to the beat of just about every other fatherhood comedy of the last 20 years. But even when Smith pulls out the clichés, they're clearly clichés he believes. Jersey Girl's sincerity and low-key charm steer it through the awkward patches, although it's hard not to wince when a conflicted Affleck tucks his daughter into bed to the accompaniment of Bruce Springsteen's "My City Of Ruins." Smith has been caught in a shitstorm he didn't create, and it's a shame he has to fight so vigorously for a film that, judged on its own merits, easily ranks among his best.