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Review: 'Jersey Girl' not quite good enough

Movie has its moments, but can't break through

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

Jersey Girl
Ben Affleck plays a widower with a young daughter in "Jersey Girl."

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Kevin Smith
Ben Affleck

(CNN) -- Guess what? "Jersey Girl" is a whole lot better than "Gigli."

Of course, that's not saying much, is it?

But stay with me. "Jersey Girl" shows that director and writer Kevin Smith is growing up. However, that's not quite enough to make the film good. "Jersey Girl" has a number of flaws -- among them an uncertainty about itself -- and it won't be the boost star Ben Affleck's career needs.

Smith is the man who put Affleck on Hollywood's map back in 1997 with "Chasing Amy"; this latest project is their fifth collaboration. Like Affleck, Smith's career has had its ups and downs, and he's had his share of clinkers.

"Jersey Girl" is a personal -- and more adult -- story which draws from his own life as a husband and father.

Affleck plays Ollie Trinke, an extremely successful music public relations flack in Manhattan. He's got the world by a string and having the time of his life. Jennifer Lopez -- in her second and probably last gig with Affleck -- plays his equally successful wife, Gertrude Steiney.

(If nothing else Smith has made up some of the strangest character names ever used -- Ollie Trinke? Gertrude Steiney?)

But I digress. When Gertrude becomes pregnant, Ollie's whole life begins to change -- but nothing prepares him for what happens when she dies in childbirth and he's suddenly a single parent. That's right: Lopez's character dies 15 minutes into the film. (Insert your own sarcastic comment here.)

New lives

Jersey Girl
After his wife dies, Affleck's character moves in with his father (George Carlin).

With nowhere else to turn, Ollie moves back home to New Jersey with his crusty widower father, Bart (George Carlin). For a while, Ollie attempts to keep his high-profile life, and shoves all of the responsibility for his newborn daughter, named Gertie after her mother, onto his reluctant father. (After the infant stage and for most of the film, Gertie is played by 8-year-old Raquel Castro.)

But soon Bart rebels, and insists that his son accept responsibility for Gertie. This results in Ollie having to take the baby to a big PR event at Planet Hollywood in New York City. The event is for a little-known actor named Will Smith, who is soon to appear in a new movie called "Independence Day."

When Smith fails to show up (he becomes a running gag throughout the film), Ollie explodes in front of the press and tells them exactly what he thinks of them, the rags they work for and this nobody named Will Smith. Not exactly a good career move. He loses his job and finds himself driving a street cleaner, just like his father, in the little Jersey town where he grew up.

A few years pass, and Ollie seems resigned to his life with his daughter and father, when he meets a video store clerk named Maya, played by Liv Tyler. She reawakens his romantic side, and the two start dating. But she's fully aware that he's only half-present and that he really wants his old life back.

"Forget about who you thought you were, and just accept who you are," she tells him at one point. So when Ollie is finally able to land another PR job back back in Manhattan, he's faced with the question: what exactly does he need to be truly happy?

Shaky points

Jersey Girl
CNN reviewer Paul Clinton says Affleck and co-star Liv Tyler, playing a video store clerk, have good chemistry.

Affleck has a lot riding on this film. After "Daredevil," "Gigli" and "Paycheck," the man needs a hit. "Jersey Girl" ain't going be it.

Kevin Smith should be commended for trying to stretch beyond his adolescent gags in previous films, and for actually trying to deal with mature themes. But the results are shaky.

Shaky point number one: does Ollie really have only two choices in life, big-time PR executive or blue-collar street sweeper? There's nothing in between? That's it?

Shaky point number two: Though he does a decent job overall, Affleck tends to hit just one note for Ollie for most of the film. His selfish attitudes in the beginning of the story don't mellow out until way too late. By the time he suddenly becomes sympathetic, the train has left the station.

On the plus side, Tyler and Affleck (they co-starred in "Armageddon") do have screen chemistry, and young Miss Castro is as cute as a button.

There are some wonderful moments in "Jersey Girl," the best an inspired elementary school stage production of "Sweeney Todd." (Don't ask -- you have to see it to believe it.) Also, this is one of the best acting jobs Affleck has done in a while.

Unfortunately, "Jersey Girl" can't make up its mind what it wants to be. It's way too tame for Smith's hardcore fans -- they'll probably hate every minute of it -- and not solid enough to draw new admirers. It's neither comedy nor drama, fish nor fowl, and that's a shame.

"Jersey Girl" opens nationwide on Friday, March 26, and is rated PG-13.

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