Thursday, 9 October 2008

For Your Reconsideration: Jersey Girl

Want to know a good way to ensure you’re ridiculed as a clueless cultural pariah in internet circles? I’ve got one: suggest that Kevin Smith’s Jersey Girl is not a black, gaping quality-void with a side order of suck. This happens partly because, on many blogs and forums, there are no grey areas when it comes to pop culture. A movie is either OMG amazing or man did it suck balls. It’s a triumph or an abortion. In light of this Jersey Girl has come to be seen as a disaster, a critically savaged bomb that all but destroyed Smith’s chance of mainstream success and drove him back to the “Askewniverse” milieu and characters he had supposedly left behind, in the form of Clerks II.

And yet Jersey Girl wasn’t a huge flop. While no-one would call it a hit, the movie recouped its $35m production budget in box office gross, and went into profit with DVD sales. The reviews weren’t terrible either: the influential Roger Ebert liked it; it has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 40% and a Metacritic score of 43, suggesting that a good number of critics thought it fair or better. I’m on board with that, and I maintain that it’s a more worthwhile work than Clerks II, Smith’s supposed return to better form (Rotten Tomatoes 63%, Metacritic 65). I contend, in fact, that each film has gained a reputation it doesn’t really deserve.

The received wisdom – much promulgated by Smith – is that Jersey Girl underperformed partly because the public was sick of the high-profile relationship between its stars Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez. Possibly true, but you would think a public that avoids a movie because of the overexposure of its cast (big-draw movie stars generally being reclusive, publicity-shy types) would leap at the chance to see Lopez’s character die in pain in the first reel. Smith’s theory that the previous Affleck-Lopez film Gigli was so awful it put audiences off Jersey Girl can be given short shrift, not least because so few people actually saw Gigli. (As an excuse it is reminiscent of Spinal Tap’s claim that their support act was so bad, “the crowd was still booing him when we came on stage”.) But there’s no doubt the movie suffered terrible word of mouth. This was presumably in large part due to the central character, who has several glaring flaws.

  • He’s played by Ben Affleck. Affleck has been charming and/or memorable in a number of movies – Dazed And Confused, Hollywoodland, Good Will Hunting, even the little-loved Phantoms – but rarely, if ever, as a romantic lead. There’s something desperately uncomfortable about watching him emote, and emote he does throughout Jersey Girl (bereavement! Unemployment! Fatherhood! Embarrassment! Redemption!). Each time a human feeling strains to etch itself across his considerable forehead, you want to reach out a restraining hand to stop him hurting himself.
  • He’s named Ollie Trinke. There’s a gag in the film about how Ollie lumbered his daughter with the name Gertie, which only serves to underline the fact that Smith named him Ollie Trinke. Every time someone says “Ollie Trinke”, you’re jolted out of the movie and into a world where the writer could have given his lead character literally any name at all, but chose Ollie Trinke.
  • He’s an arsehole. He’s an arsehole on a personal level, as we see from his ingratitude when his father steps into the breach and raises his daughter (something Ollie is too self-absorbed to contemplate doing himself), and from his egocentric assumption that his daughter will naturally want the life he plans to give her. He’s an arsehole on a professional level too: a publicist, a paid bullshitter, who treats subordinates and rivals badly, and whose one moment of honesty in the workplace loses him his inconsequential job. Rather than realising from this how worthless the industry is, he pines for his lost vocation for years to the detriment of all personal satisfaction.
  • It takes a combination of two hackneyed movie contrivances to show him the error of his ways: one a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a free-spirited, sexually liberated cutie with nothing better to do than fix this hapless sad-sack’s life; and the other a Magical Negro, who just happens to be both the indirect cause of his employment problems and the Biggest Goddamn Movie Star In The Whole World. Somehow these fantastic creatures get through to him while his own daughter can’t.

    So he’s a dense, self-centred arsehole with a stupid name, played by a resolutely unsympathetic actor. That’s a lot of baggage for one character. But it’s not an inherent problem, because this is a movie about a dense, self-centred arsehole with a stupid name. The problem is that it’s aimed at a mainstream audience, who would reasonably expect a comedy about a nice, regular guy with a small flaw to be overcome in time for Christmas and the closing credits. A zany unreadiness to commit to a relationship, perhaps, or an adorable childishness that makes him scared to have kids of his own. The cutesy romcom images in the marketing material back up this impression, so it’s no wonder people came away confused and wondering why they spent so much of the movie disliking the character with whom they assumed they should empathise.

    In general Jersey Girl is not a film that goes out of its way to be liked. Aside from the unpleasant lead character, it’s full of discomfort and close-to-the-bone domestic conflict, not to mention Lopez’s messy death. Few people watch a comedy to be reminded of their own human frailties. But its readiness to confront harsh realities such as mortality, selfishness, grief and abandonment are marks in its favour. This isn’t a fluffy crowd-pleaser, it’s a reflection on sacrifice, maturity, responsibility and finding your way in the world, and Smith deserves kudos for largely resisting well-worn romantic-comedy banalities. I guess people may want films consisting purely of schmaltzy, platitudinal frothiness or solely of scatalogical hijinks. Me, I’ll take uncomfortable, abrasive Jersey Girl any day over the dozen or more toxic comedies shat out by patronising studios each year.

    There are other things to like about the movie. For one, an adorably non-adorable performance from Raquel Castro, whose gauche line readings and lack of neatly-groomed rehearsing-since-the-womb perfection make her infinitely cuter than most nominally winsome but actually creepily robotic child actors. George Carlin as Trinke Sr is sly, irascible and a choleric joy, avoiding the obvious softy-grandpa tropes as a grumpily realistic audience surrogate puncturing his son’s vanity and hubris. Smith has been as sentimental as any American director in his career, but he doesn’t romanticise the New Jersey suburbs here: Carlin doesn’t have some amusingly quirky small-town job but is a street-cleaner; Smith even manages to make Liv Tyler – who had just spent three years onscreen playing an ethereal elven princess – look like a reasonably normal woman.

    And there’s jokes. I laughed out loud several times. Smith might not have married a mainstream romcom feel to his usual lowbrow sex-and-weed-jokes sensibility with total success, but his sense of humour’s still there. On my recent viewing of Clerks II, I laughed exactly once – at a throwaway Jay line – and spent the rest of the time wondering what this fundamentally conventional film had to do with Clerks, other than making me think Wow, these characters sure got more boring as they grew older.

    Clerks II tries far too hard to be funny and daring – stupid high-school nicknames, slapstick, pop-culture riffs, donkey sex shows – and ends up just seeming awkward, like a youngish uncle attempting to impress bored adolescents. This is reinforced by the teenage character Elias (Trevor Fehrman), ostensibly a guileless whipping boy for Randall’s (Jeff Anderson) caustic wit, but surely a late insertion into the script when someone realised, whoops, our characters are all in their thirties and we need kids to go see this! Smith has undoubtedly improved as a filmmaker since the jejune flatness and stagey dialogue of Clerks, but here this translates into not one but two unforgivably boring montages: one in which Becky (Rosario Dawson) bouncingly teaches Dante (Brian O’Halloran) to dance and is suddenly backed up by a chorus featuring the entire population of New Jersey, and one in which Dante Drives Around Moodily And Thinks About His Life Choices. Montage sequences have their place but these are self-indulgent, tone-destroying annoyances.

    Still, they’re not Clerks II’s worst indulgence, which is that from start to finish it’s basically an apology for Jersey Girl. Smith’s half-arsed excuses for the earlier film’s underperformance are understandable, but making a whole $5m movie pleading for forgiveness is a disproportionate response. At the start of Clerks II, Dante has been sucked in by the temptations of a normal adult life – marriage, house, working for his wife’s father, effectively Going Mainstream. Although the girl he is marrying clearly adores him and puts up with plenty of nonsense from him, Dante constantly questions his motives. Is he just doing this because it’s what society demands, because it’s what’s expected of him? After a day spent examining his options (and discussing them with Becky, who incidentally turns out to be a combination of Magical Ethnicity – see the aforementioned dance lesson – and Manic Pixieosity), Dante realises: he should just stay right here in Jersey and do the same thing he’s always done! He was a fool to think he should take the opportunity to grow and travel and try new things and explore the myriad possibilities open to a man! The parallels are glaring, and they do Smith no favours.

    Jersey Girl doesn’t need or deserve this fulsome, self-vindicating coda – which ultimately fails, since it’s a less satisfying film than the one it’s apologising for. Apparently even Smith has realised that Clerks II’s message is bollocks, as the upcoming Zack And Miri Make A Porno sees him turn his back on his own personal QuickStop again to try something different. He’s even working with renowned improvisers, which he has confessed to loathing in the past. The film, which has garnered some good early notices, looks dirty (in all the good senses), honest and scabrous, and Smith has already butted heads with the MPAA over the marketing. Basically, and thankfully, it looks like he’s rediscovered some conviction, so I’m crossing my fingers he doesn’t lose it again and come up with Clerks III: Jersey Forever next.

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