Jersey Girl Is Owed an Apology — Why ‘The Bennifer Flop’ Is One of My Favorite Kevin Smith Movies
For the time being, actors Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez reunited as a romantic couple. The first time they dated, they became a tabloid sensation as part of that gross bit of entertainment and celebrity culture where people’s lives become the drama. The two of them starred in a film together that did not do well, but almost 20 years after-the-fact, it deserves its due. No, I am not talking about Gigli, though that’s not as bad as people seemed to think at the time either. I am talking about Kevin Smith’s first departure from his View Askewniverse for a film designed for more universal appeal. He made Jersey Girl with longtime friend and collaborator Ben Affleck, and Jennifer Lopez played his wife. Like Gigli, this movie is also notorious. The most tragic thing about all this is: Smith succeeded. At its worst, this movie was sugar sweet and told a complete, arguably satisfying story. This was a film that suffered from the fact that people could not see past its stars and the equally public end of that first relationship. We really were fools in the early 2000s, weren’t we?
The movie is called a romantic comedy, but that feels limiting. This is not a dig at rom-coms, because who am I to tell you what not to like? Jersey Girl is not the story of how Ben Affleck’s Oliver Trinke got over the death of his wife Gertrude, played (well) by Jennifer Lopez, and falls for Maya, played by Liv Tyler. Yes, this is what happens, but that’s the plot (and only part of it). Still this movie is about a lot more than that. Insofar as Kevin Smith’s films have been reflective of his real life experiences, this seems to be the movie where he is figuring out what being a father really means. Seeing it again just recently, I am struck by how this is less a “romantic” comedy and more a “love” comedy. Because love is at the center of both the relationships and the conflicts in this film.
The main love story, however, is not Ollie and Maya, but Ollie and his daughter. Gertie, an astounding performance by the impossibly young Raquel Castro, is the center of this film. It’s about the love a husband has for his late wife, who he lost when he (and Gertie) needed her most. Later, he loses his dream job, the only thing he was really good at. So, he goes right back to where he began, which is luckily a house full of love, even though his father is a gruff, old-school Jersey man. The lede of every review of Jersey Girl should have been about how Hollywood studios fucked up by not letting George Carlin act more. Lastly, the main conflict of the film is the love that Ollie has for the life he lost when his wife died and how it calls to him still even after enough years to ride out the bad luck of breaking a mirror.
Jersey Girl Is 100% a ‘Kevin Smith Film’
Kevin Smith created five movies set in our first true cinematic universe, connected by Jay & Silent Bob. By the time Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back came out, the term “Kevin Smith movie” became as much a genre of filmmaking as it was merely a concise way to identify a film directed by Kevin Smith. The other thing that struck me about this film was that it is very much a “Kevin Smith movie” in both senses of the term. When Jersey Girl hit theaters, we got an expression of a side of the director we’d not seen before. His child, obviously part of the inspiration for this story, is now an adult. So, we’ve had decades of Smith being a big ol’ softie for his kid. (As the parent of a beautiful and brilliant 20-year-old artist, I fully relate.)
At the time this movie came out, wry wit, pointed conversations, and dick-and-fart jokes was his lane. This movie was seen as far and away outside of it. Still, all the Smithian staples are there. First, Jersey. Second, a video store is a key location in the film. In fact, the scene in which Ben Affleck blindly reaches into the “porn room” (itself already something of an anachronism in 2004) to grab any video while his kid is getting a cartoon seems like something that could happen at RST Video. Lastly, the story is small, but the characters and the emotions they go through feel bigger than the Death Star. (The second one from Return of the Jedi, not that tiny-ass, not-a-moon one from A New Hope.)
Early 2000s films have a certain visual quality about them, and Jersey Girl has it in spades. Yet, now that this is nearly a 20-year-old movie, it makes me think of the visual quality of Clerks. It doesn’t just capture its time via dialogue, pop culture references, or the predominance of cathode tube computer monitors. This looks very much like an early 2000s movie, and as time trucked on, I believe this helps this movie capture its moment. Other than my general wish that folks get to be happy, I give as much of a shit about the stars’ relationship then as I do now. (Which is to say not even a single stink nugget.) This film captures a time where we all thought we were so enlightened and forward-thinking, but really we were all still just lost in the sauce of 20th century thinking. Like Clerks before it, Jersey Girl is revolutionary because of its subject matter. Instead of slackers making their way through a tough day, it’s a love story between a reluctant parent and a child who definitely deserved better than she got. Yet what moves me even today, as both a fan of fiction and a father myself, is the ultimate lesson that the “better life” we think our kids need is almost always not the life they want. It’s a love comedy, and Gertie is surrounded by love. Like Chasing Amy before it, Jersey Girl was a fresh take on the romantic comedy, a genre so formulaic that most movie fans can guess what happens in one before they even see a trailer.
Why Jersey Girl has Always Been Special to Me
Of course, since all art is subjective, one’s experience with the material cannot be discounted. With a filmography full of raunchy and nerdy titles, it surprises me that Jersey Girl is the Kevin Smith film that most feels like it is just for me. When I saw this movie, I had been a father myself for almost three years. In fact, like Ollie tells Will Smith, I didn’t get to see this movie when it came out because I was busy working and being a dad which left little time to go to the theater.
I didn’t get to watch this movie until it was released on DVD, and I was about halfway into my 18-month deployment to the Iraq War. I left two weeks before my kid’s third birthday, so I didn’t even know what I was missing out on. Yet, I had this huge emotional hole in my heart. Seeing Jersey Girl helped me understand what it was. I bawled during this movie, much to the delight of my roommates who said very problematic things to me, especially as I ran out late at night to run to the phone center and try to call home. My kid couldn’t even really talk on the phone, but I still wanted to hear that little voice.
It also helped that the first person we see is the movie is Betty Aberlin, who because of her tenure on Mister Rogers Neighborhood, felt like a little piece of home right off the bat. I felt like crying but held it together. Then, it got worse. I related to Affleck’s character, especially in the beginning. My partner didn’t die in childbirth, thankfully, but even by the time I was in Iraq I knew our chance at the happily-ever-after ending was as dead as the adult Gertrude by the 15-minute mark.
I was a reluctant father who did not take naturally to caring for an infant. I’d get stuff wrong, and I’d often prioritize work over my responsibilities as a dad. Unfortunately, you need money to eat and have a roof and stuff. In fact, part of the reason I found myself thousands of miles away in a country I shouldn’t have been in, was because the Army paid well and dangled an education in front of you like a carrot on a stick. Though, my war was easy. As far as danger goes, anything I experienced wouldn’t even count as a war story in your nearest VFW hall. There wasn’t a day I didn’t almost wet myself laughing. And movies were the best, because they provided us an imaginary escape from a place where, at any moment, an alarm would blare and, if you weren’t dead or injured, you’d rush to a concrete bunker to wait while the real soldiers took care of the problem. Only while watching Jersey Girl, I felt almost attacked because what the fuck-up dad felt and did seemed like everything I was feeling and doing. Only, I didn’t have the ‘advantage’ of a dead wife, I’d just torpedoed my relationship, too.
After a time-jump, the dynamic changes. Now instead of the father of a baby, like me, Ollie is the father of a precocious first grader. Again, I am going to mention Castro’s performance, because I believed everything she said and did, especially with the benefit of hindsight. Acting is a fun way to lie to a person, but what Castro did ascends to the level of magic trick. In fact her performance combined with Affleck’s is what sells this movie. While this might seem like a stupid thing to say about any film, but I think Jersey Girl primed the pump for me to be a better father. It, consciously or unconsciously, allowed me to conceive of a future where I was a great dad, even if I wasn’t in a committed relationship with my kid’s mom. The only person I had to love was my kid, and that was enough to fill the then-cynical heart of a 20-something kid who didn’t think he had what it took to raise a child.
Looking back, it is the first time I think I saw a portrayal of a single father who is best friends with his kid. “Oh but kids don’t need a friend,” some dickhead might say, “they need a parent.” And I think that in Jersey Girl, Smith is either trying to define or figuring out for himself what being a “parent” means, especially in a world that’s not what it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Throughout most of the movie, Ollie is a pretty good dad. He’s fully devoted himself to his kid, even going so far as to deny himself a relationship for his child’s entire life. Not even a quickie with an old neighborhood ex from around the way. Almost as unbelievable as a guy with that chin not getting laid for longer than World War I and the Korean War combined is that he can’t find a job in New York doing public relations. Instead, he’s stuck working with his old man on the public works crew in his native Jersey town.
The thing that stuck with me about Jersey Girl was the relationship that Ollie had with Gertie. I grew up without a dad, so all I knew about fathering came from fiction. And this was the first time I saw something other than the norm. Ollie’s kid was into weird things, such as performing a Sweeny Todd number during the school talent show. Later, when my kid started drawing devils, skeletons, and other heavy metal imagery, I thankfully reacted like Ollie. I didn’t say it was bad, weird, nor ‘too grown-up.’ Instead, I supported and encouraged my kid because I remembered what it was like being really young and writing scary horror stories that got my mom called in to my Catholic grade school for a conference about my well-being.
When I got home from Iraq, I did not revisit Jersey Girl like I do other Smith films. Any movie I saw in Iraq got something like a +10 bonus to my enjoyment, and I wanted to preserve my good memory of the movie. I just accepted, like most folks including it seems Smith himself, that Jersey Girl was not a “good movie.” That’s horseshit. Last week I watched it for probably the sixth or seventh time in my life, but the first time since 2005. And it is a lovely movie. Now that I have the benefit of hindsight with fatherhood, I can see even more clearly how unique this film is. I also find myself wondering how much Smith’s take on being a single dad influenced my own approach to it. In fact, I think Jersey Girl now ranks among my favorite in Smith’s film canon. It is an ode to fatherhood unlike any I’ve seen since. Sure, Jason Mewes isn’t there making us laugh and it is a departure from his pre-Red State work, but it holds up. It’s a feel-good movie that offers the writer and director’s most powerful message about love in a career full of making statements about love.
Yet, intentionally or not, Kevin Smith makes a bold statement about parenthood here. This feels like a direct response to those folks who think that being a ‘good parent’ means making all the same mistakes our parents did. He told a story about a father brave enough to be honest with his kid, even when he doesn’t have it all together. The father and daughter relationship in this movie is a parent-child relationship, but Affleck really sells that Ollie is also friends with his kid. Gertie trusts her father and knows he loves her, even when he snaps and says he hates her and calls her a “little shit.” The tension in the final scene — a classic set up for the rom-com where the protagonist must run somewhere to get to the object of his affection in time — is actually lessened because of this. His kid not only forgives him for his outburst but says she understands why their life might have to change. She totally lets him off-the-hook, which makes his sprint to the school even that much more powerful. He’s not doing it to “save” his relationship with his daughter. He’s doing it because it’s what his kid not only needs but what she deserves.
Jersey Girl is a lovely, sweet movie, and all of us owe Kevin Smith and the artists he collaborated with to make this movie a huge apology. Like so many bad parents, we were so trapped in what we thought things should be to not see this movie (and, in a larger sense, post-9/11 parenting) for what it is. I don’t know if Jersey Girl actually made me a better father, but like all great stories, it moved something in me that set me on a path. Whether that path was just to the phone center that night in Iraq or a longer one that ends with me as the kind of father I can be proud of being, I don’t know. Still, I’m glad this movie exists, and it’s one I am going to watch more often, especially when I am feeling nostalgic about my journey from being a reckless 20-something to being a big ol’ softie for my kid.
Jersey Girl is currently on HBO Max and available to own or rent wherever you get movies.
So, this is my two-cents about Jersey Girl and how it holds up after being a famous Bennifer flop. But, if you follow my critical work at all, you know that my fatal flaw is that I like to like things. Share your opinions, reviews, and thoughts about this movie in the comments below. Also, check out Comic Years for more news, reviews, and analysis about whimsy and nonsense that combines to make magic.