Silent Bob speaks on Jersey Girl

The Clerks creator returns to his roots in an effort to grow up

Liv Tyler and Raquel Castro take a long hard look at Ben Affleck in Kevin Smith’s new film Jersey Girl.
Liv Tyler and Raquel Castro take a long hard look at Ben Affleck in Kevin Smith’s new film Jersey Girl.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of Miramax Films
Kevin Smith directing Liv Tyler and Ben Affleck on the set of Jersey Girl.
Kevin Smith directing Liv Tyler and Ben Affleck on the set of Jersey Girl.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of Miramax Films

It has been 10 years since a shaggy, trench coat-clad New Jersey filmmaker in his early 20s, playing a mute drug dealer in his independent directorial debut, stood in front of the counter at Quick Stop Variety and mused, “You know, there’s a million fine-looking women in the world, dude. But they don’t all bring you lasagna at work. Most of them just cheat on you.” What a difference a decade makes.

Kevin Smith is now in a much different position. No longer is he the same 24-year-old that sold most of his comic book collection to make a film with his friends about their mundane lives on the edge of the universe in suburban New Jersey. Smith’s films have developed a cult following in recent years, due largely to the serial dope-pushing characters known simply as Jay and Silent Bob.

Since completing work on Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, the final filmic journey for the characters, Smith has written for a number of different comic book titles, including Spiderman and Green Arrow, had television “success” with a cartoon mini-series version of Clerks, acted as a photographer when his wife Jennifer Schwalbach-Smith posed in Playboy and made cameo appearances in Daredevil and The Meeting. It was while Smith was working on these various side projects that he conceived of his latest film, Jersey Girl.

In a recent press interview, Smith sat down with university reporters from all over North America to talk about Jersey Girl, which opens this weekend. Smith laughed and joked throughout the interview, correcting nervous writers attempting to call him Mr. Smith. “It’s Kevin,” he said. When asked why he chose to make a film without Jay and Silent Bob, Smith said he wanted to break from his traditional material.

“I wanted to see if I could make a movie that stood on its own,” he said. “The only movie I ever made that didn’t lean on a movie that came before it was Clerks. I guess that this was my chance to work without a net, and tell a story that stands on its own.” Jersey Girl is the story of Ollie Trinke (Ben Affleck) a big shot New York music publicist who is forced to move back into his father’s New Jersey home to raise his daughter after his wife dies during childbirth. Jersey Girl doesn’t sound like a typical Kevin Smith movie. That’s because it isn’t. Don’t panic—while Jennifer Lopez is in the film, her character, Gertie, barely makes it through the opening credits. She dies during childbirth, stranding Affleck with their daughter, also named Gertie, played by Raquel Castro. As the love child of the fictional Bennifer, Castro is one of the more endearing aspects of Jersey Girl. The careful consideration to the nuances of dealing with a little girl is explored in a humorous way that only Kevin Smith could make possible. Castro is so dynamic that sometimes she feels too old for her character, expressing an emotional sensitivity even greater than that of her father at times. Unfortunately, Affleck seems to have lost the humanity that made his roles in Chasing Amy and Good Will Hunting memorable.

Kevin Smith’s writing and directing is usually able to get a good performance out of Affleck, but neither could save his performance here. In stark contrast, George Carlin, who plays Affleck’s borderline-alcoholic father Bert, proves that he can actually act in something without a time-travelling phone booth. Carlin displays a tenderness that makes his character the most endearing of the film, despite his crass one-liners about “whores and the reefer.” The relationship between little Gertie and Bert is nothing short of sickeningly heartwarming, while avoiding cliché. Their interaction almost makes up for the Affleck crying scene. Almost. Liv Tyler makes an appearance as a very un-Randall-like video store clerk. Playing a grad student studying the habits of pornography consumption, Tyler meets Affleck when he rents a porno movie while with his daughter. Throughout the film, Tyler’s character seems most comfortable in her Jersey surroundings; one scene in particular, where a brassiere-clad Tyler is caught making out with Affleck in the shower by little Gertie, shows her ability to be sexy, funny and vulnerable all at once. Cameos by Matt Damon, Jason Lee and Jason Biggs were expected, and not overdone. The appearance of Will Smith musing about how he is a parent that “just don’t understand” is priceless.

Jason Mewes was offered a cameo in Jersey Girl, but a bench warrant for his arrest in the state of New Jersey stemming from earlier drug problems prevented his partaking in the film. Smith’s trademark style is still there in Jersey Girl, it just seems to be blurred and obscured behind a sappy, glossy finish. The usual Star Wars jokes, drawn out two-shot conversations in cars and potty humour jokes are there, just in shorter supply. However, the writing, which is usually a hallmark of Smith’s films, is somewhat lacking. There are shining moments of touching dialogue between Affleck and Tyler, and Carlin and Castro, but Smith misses numerous opportunities to showcase his writing ability and instead opts for character development through montage—set to Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” if you can believe that. So why on earth is the man who made “snootchie-bootchies” and “cocksmoker” catchphrases making a film about getting married and having kids?

“The people that grew up with Clerks are getting older now and getting married and having kids,” Smith said. “I kinda crib from my own life. Each movie I make is a snapshot of what is going on in my life, and in my head at the time that I write it.”

After the dismal failure of the first Bennifer picture, Gigli, Smith made several changes to Jersey Girl, including dropping Lopez from all of the film’s trailers and posters, as well as cutting a short wedding scene from the film. It remains unclear as to whether Smith’s decision was made so as not to upset the more snotty and cultish movie buffs that dominate his usual audience, or because Miramax wanted the changes from a promotional standpoint.

What is next for the man so in love with comic books that he named his first daughter Harley Quinn, after the Batman character? Smith has signed on to write and produce the next Fletch film, and most recently he signed on to direct a big-budget film version of The Green Hornet comic for Miramax. “It’s a bigger movie than I have ever done before—I’m not just having to please just my own audience,” Smith said. “I tried to bail out of the picture because I didn’t want to pooch it. But Harvey [Weinstein, Miramax co-chair] wouldn’t let me. He told me that I should be scared and that, ‘You can do it, you can grow up and use that fear.’ Fear is where great art comes from.”

Jersey Girl is the work of a director who is maturing and growing beyond the constraints of adolescent humour and Cheech and Chong parody. The tools and talent are there for Kevin Smith to develop into an accomplished and respected Hollywood director. Jersey Girl is just a stepping stone, and shows the promise that is to come from the guy from the Askew-niverse.

If fear is where great art comes from, perhaps Smith should have been a bit more afraid to use Ben Affleck in a film after Gigli.

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