The Fall And Fall Of Benjamin Affleck
Well now, ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, we appear to have successfully weathered the initial onslaught of summer blockbusters, and now the multiplexes are actually back to showing films only on a single screen at a time. The downside to this, of course, is that traditionally the only films the studios are prepared to pit against the Troys and Potters - which are still very much around - are a right bunch of old yappers.
Which brings us to Jersey Girl, the first non-Jay and Silent Bob film from indie auteur Kevin Smith. Here Smith hooks up with his regular collaborator Ben Affleck once more. On this occasion Ben embodies high-flying New York music biz PR Oliver Trinke, who is of course enormously popular and good at his job, and blessed with a lovely relationship with fellow PR Gertrude (Jennifer Lopez)...
(Now I appreciate that all these facts seem almost designed to make a discerning cinemagoer deeply wary, as they sound like the recipe for an intentionally bad film. Well, the thing about Jersey Girl is the way that... er... well, okay, you may have a point there, but stick around anyway.)
...but tragedy befalls Ben when J-Lo dies in childbirth. (Connoisseurs of the actor's art will cherish Jenny-from-the-block's portrayal of this moment, which mainly consists of her going cross-eyed and flopping backwards.) Ben is clearly quite upset by this development (the stress causes him near-total facial paralysis and he loses the ability to vary the tone of this voice - but then again this is probably just Ben Affleck's acting style), which leaves him an unhappy single father with serious emotional issues...
(Yes, it gets even worse, doesn't it? Look, I knew the risks, I made my choice. Besides, Affleck's usually been okay when Kevin Smith's been in the vicinity in the past.)
...which eventually lead to him getting sacked and having to move in with his crusty old dad (George Carlin) in New Jersey. After a mind-boggling scene in which a teary Ben tells the tot he'd rather have died instead of J-Lo (I briefly empathised, feeling that I'd rather have died than sat through this crap) we skip forward seven years. Ben is now working as a municipal dogsbody in New Jersey (this is signified by a slight change in his hairstyle) and his daughter (Raquel Castro) has grown into an irksomely cute smart-arse. But lo! A choice is on the horizon for Ben. Will he pick the wholesome pleasures of blue-collar life in New Jersey, and a romance with video-store girl Maya (Liv Tyler)? Or will he opt to return to his high-pressure, work-comes-first lifestyle back in New York City?
Well, readers, if you can't figure than one out in advance then - well, then I suggest you go and see Jersey Girl as you'll probably genuinely enjoy it. This is a pleasure denied to the rest of us, who are forced to indulge in ironic chortling at just what a strange, strange movie this is.
I have no idea who Jersey Girl's target audience is. It barely qualifies as a date movie, as the Ben and Liv romance hardly gets going (incidentally, and I don't wish to sound ungallant, but on this evidence the Lord of the Rings cossie designers did a hell of a job concealing the fact that Liv has shoulders like a prop forward). Pensioners and younger viewers inclined to coo over the film's high cute-kid and nappy-changing-joke quotient will probably be less enthralled with the extraordinary scene where Liv and Ben compare their respective masturbatory regimes before opting for casual sex. Kevin Smith's not-inconsiderable fanbase will be left aghast by the aforementioned cute-kiddie stuff. And just who on God's green Earth would choose to see a movie the climax to which consists of Ben, Liv, and the rest of the principal cast performing a selection of Stephen Sondheim musical numbers? I haven't got a clue.
Quite what has happened to Kevin Smith I really don't know1. It would be nice to be able to say that this must be the work of some other Kevin Smith, but unfortunately this is still recognisably a film by the guy who made Clerks and Dogma. Smith is famous for writing the world's least convincing, most convoluted and enjoyable dialogue, and this is on display here, along with flashes of the usual scabrous wit (and a Star Wars reference). But what worked so well in his earlier comedies (almost all profane and cynical) just doesn't play in a film which clearly wants to evoke genuine warmth and emotion. It doesn't help that this is a film bursting with tired old cliches and glutinous sentimentality.
For all that, the movie does have a few good jokes in it and you can't fault its intentions, and Smith has (as usual) snagged a good cast (Jason Lee and Matt Damon cameo). And – deep breath – Ben can actually do comedy quite well. But even the writing and direction are flawed: one big set-piece has Ben persuading his neighbours that some roadworks really are essential (yup, high-octane stuff, this) with a brilliant speech - but Smith cops out of having to write the speech and then getting Affleck to deliver it, basically just cutting to the aftermath and everyone saying 'What a brilliant speech, Ben!' This is elementary stuff and a director on his sixth movie should know better. The same goes for Ben's toe-curling epiphany about the importance of being a good parent at the end of the movie, courtesy of a Major International Superstar (appearing uncredited, but presaged by a smug running gag about the improbability of his film career), which mixes sentimentality with crushing obviousness.
But then Jersey Girl is a film only functioning on the most obvious, mechanical and sentimental level. There's nothing actually wrong with this, I suppose, but even so… I do genuinely have a soft spot for Ben Affleck - if nothing else his recent movies have all been consistent, and he seems like a nice guy when not acting - but if he's now going to start going about wrecking the careers of people like Kevin Smith then I fear the time has come to be cruel to be kind. So, if either you or your career are listening, Ben: go towards the light! Go towards the light!