In JERSEY GIRL, Ben Affleck gives the best performance of his career. This is not to say that it is a brilliant performance, I don’t want to raise expectations unfairly, but considering the abuse I and other reviewers have heaped on him in the past, its only fair to give the boy his props now. It may be Kevin Smiths sympathetic direction, it may be co-star, Raquel Castro, the seven-year-old daughter who has completely changed the life of her father, Ollie Trinke (Affleck), in ways that Ollie hasnt quite latched onto quite yet. It may be the character he’s playing, a basically good guy whose deep-seated streak of self-centeredness has made him lose touch with the important things in life. No one does vapid arrogance like Affleck.
Ollie is now a single father, collecting garbage, plowing snow, and otherwise doing the road maintenance for the Highlands, New Jersey. But before said daughter, Gertie, was born, he was a prince of New York City. As a high-priced PR flack in the music biz, attended by an overly emotional assistant (Jason Biggs), he puffed the biggest artists and was the master of all he surveyed. It was the life he dreamed of far from the Jersey roots and his cranky father (George Carlin). And if it is one that requires a 24/7 commitment, that’s okay with Ollie because he really, really loves what he does. Just when it seems life just cant get any better, he starts a romance with another Gertie (Jennifer Lopez, who, never fear, is gone in 15 minutes), the love of his life and the mother of the younger Gertie. Into this perfect life cruel fate descends. First, Gertie dies in childbirth. Then Ollie, overwhelmed by grief and a baby that needs diapers changed, becomes a legend in the PR business, but not in a good way. Literally juggling his infant and his job, he disses a client, Will Smith, to the room full of journalists waiting to see him, and then tells off the journalists in terms that defy spinning into something less career sinking. It becomes known at the Will Smith incident and Ollie becomes THE Ollie Trinke.
Jump ahead seven years and Ollie has joined his old man on street sweeping patrol. Hes also moved in with him after losing that PR job and any chance of getting another one in the PR field. Still, hes never given up hope that hell make a comeback in New York City and you have to admire his moxy, considering hes been told that Adolph Hitlers PR guy would have a better chance at being welcomed back into the fold. Hes also wrapped around little Gerties finger, and, if hed only stop looking towards what was and what might be again, hed see that hes never been happier with whats right in front of him. It takes a comely video store clerk with the perhaps suitably mystical name of Maya (Liv Tyler), as well as an old pal from his glory days to put everything in perspective.
Smith, the man who brought us DOGMA, JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK, and the classic, CLERKS, may have gone warm and fuzzy here, but instead of schmaltz, theres some serious snarkiness. Raising a kid may be the best thing a guy can do with his life, but it isnt just gurgles and cooing. Its seriously dirty diapers and keeping cool in the face of Gerties bout of playing doctor. Or wanting to stage a neck-slicing scene from Sweeney Todd for her school pageant. Affleck, who often seems confused on screen whether the character demands it or not, here uses that quirk to exquisite advantage as Ollie matches wits with a kid who is, on the whole, not only smarter, but also probably more mature than he is. Theres some real charm to the dad being raised by his daughter. Castro has one or two bouts of the kid-actor cutes, but for the most part, does the real kid thing with aplomb while seeming to channel J Lo in ways that transcend looks and veer into the sorta kinda spooky. As the not-quite love interest, Tyler exudes a refreshing impishness particularly when Maya is questioning Ollie for her graduate thesis on the porn-renting habits of the single father. Those are the showier roles, but pay attention to Carlin. This is a performance that is remarkable for its understatement and its wealth of unsentimental emotion. Watch the reaction when Ollie announces that he may really be getting back to his old life. Carlins eyes tell it all even before he launches into his dialogue.
Theres no getting around that JERSEY GIRLs ending is more than a little contrived. Smith wanted to make Ollies options, and his ultimate choice, very clear with no gray areas to cloud the black and white of what he really wants to do with his life. If it, like the rest of the film, didnt work so well emotionally, it would be a disaster, as it is, its the sort of thing that can be forgiven for the greater good. That would be one of the nicest celebrations of why we need family, even though, and sometimes because, they drive us crazy.