Jersey Girl: Ben Versus the Volcano

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Hollywood can be a pretty horrifying place when viewed objectively. It may be a contrived film cliche or something rooted in historical fact but the idea of ancient tribes of people elevating one of their own to the status of a living god, to be celebrated and lavished with gifts and luxury, only to be subsequently hurled into a volcano as a human sacrifice is an idea not completely outlandish to the tabloids and internet community in present day. Such a sacrifice was fully underway when Jersey Girl was released; the heaving ebullient monstrosity that was dubbed ‘Bennifer’ was being mercilessly and almost jubilantly destroyed by the very media that had created it, like Dr. Frankenstein himself leading the townsfolk, pitchfork and burning torch in hand. Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck were constantly in the news for how much they supposedly sucked and, ironically, how overexposed they had become. Whether or not they deserved the kind of critical derision they received is hard to gauge given how much it seemed to take on a kind of sport and Jersey Girl was trampled upon release like a small child wandering into a parade ground. Metaphor and simile aside, it marked the first genuine departure of style for writer/director Kevin Smith, a maturation and a real risk that demonstrated how much of a heart the man has, beyond the dick and fart jokes. Kevin Smith is a sentimentalist and an undeniably sweet human being who also happens to be buddies with one of the biggest stars on the planet right around the time the planet decided to hurl that buddy into the sun.

As a film Jersey Girl is hard to categorize. It’s labeled romantic comedy but I don’t think that does it justice. Not to spoil anything but the romantic subplot is only that: a subplot. One that smacks of his earlier film Chasing Amy and this feeling that Smith is not given enough credit for creating so well in his pictures. That in real life love does not have a beginning, middle, and end. Sometimes it’s a bunch of beginnings, sometimes it’s a beginning and end and then a middle. You really don’t know where you are until the whole story is over and there is a lovely moment in Jersey Girl that reaffirms that sentiment.

At the core of the story is the relationship between a man and his daughter and something I’ll designate as a Second Coming of Age story. In a typical Bildungsroman setting a character goes through an arc that changes their world view and results, ideally, in maturity and newfound wisdom which is very often applied to youth or inexperience. But Oliver Trinke is not a child, he’s a grown successful man with a wife and a child on the way when we meet him. It’s much more difficult to change as an adult, when our chemical pathways are pretty well locked in and our worldview is established. So the change itself is a little more difficult, a little more challenging when life takes an unexpected U-Turn and demands you carry on anyway, without a thing or a person you were going to rely on.
When the spite and contempt was hurled at Jersey Girl for having the gall to be heartfelt and sincere I could only look on in confusion. I will acquiesce the film paints in broad strokes. It is not a hidden diamond in the annals of film history. But it is a kind of gem. While I normally can’t handle child actors for the most part, Raquel Castro is disarming and fully capable with both the comedy and the dramatic turns. Liv Tyler is lovely and well written as a fully rounded and intelligent, if a little bit of a weird female character who does not exist to throw her heart at Affleck’s Ollie. And the real scene stealer is George Carlin, playing as authentic and grounded as I have ever seen him.

I make no apologies for being an unabashed Kevin Smith fan. I’ve seen so many of his Q&As so many times at this point that if I ever have the good fortune of hanging out with the guy I doubt I’d be starstruck at all. To me it would be like running into a very good friend who I haven’t seen in a long time. At the same time I can also view his writing and directing style objectively. He’s not going to remembered as a genius auteur or visionary, rather, as a filmmaker with true and absolute love of the medium who had fun doing what he enjoyed with people he liked being around. I cannot imagine better ‘win’ conditions. So Jersey Girl isn’t perfect but it’s not atrocious. It succeeds in doing what it sets out to do putting a few tears in the eye and a few laughs along the way. In a sense the experience works as a kind of Bildungsroman for Smith himself, for better or worse. He left his comfort zone and got burned for it. He returned to the well and succeeded with Clerks II and is now experimenting with horror, which I did not see coming, and that’s cool, too. Whatever lights a fire.

To return to an earlier metaphor there is an underrated and kind of bizarre film that kept coming to mind while writing this piece called Joe Versus the Volcano. It’s an earlier Tom Hanks flick before he transitioned from comedic actor to a dramatic one and it has a few poignant moments that stuck with me over the years. Essentially, Joe decides to give up his life and become the aforementioned sacrifice on behalf of a native tribe and on the way discovers the value and beauty of everything that life has to offer. At one point his character is asked, “Listen. Ain’t you got nobody?” To which he replies, “No. But there are certain times in your life when I guess you’re not supposed to have anybody, you know? There are certain doors you have to go through alone.”

Oliver Trinke has a door to get through on his own and when he does finally find the way home it’s an enormously rewarding experience, one I hope finds an audience now that the natives have moved onto new sacrifices.

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