Kevin Smith wades into familiar mainstream territory with bland slab of sentimental hokum that proves even the most smart-alecky of indie auteurs can turn warm and fuzzy on occasion. Pic overall resembles a "very special episode" of a routine sitcom. There simply isn't enough here to draw significant numbers of non-fans to megaplexes.

Kevin Smith wades into familiar mainstream territory with “Jersey Girl,” a bland slab of sentimental hokum that proves even the most smart-alecky of indie auteurs can turn warm and fuzzy on occasion. Despite flashes of barbed wit and some engaging performances, pic overall resembles a “very special episode” of a routine sitcom. Diehard fans of Smith’s “Clerks,” “Dogma” and “Chasing Amy” will likely be disappointed. Trouble is, there simply isn’t enough here to draw significant numbers of non-fans to megaplexes.

Oft-delayed Miramax release might benefit from curiosity value of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez briefly reteamed onscreen. (Insert “Gigli” joke here.) But Lopez is scarcely more than a bit player in “Jersey Girl,” as bulk of pic happens after her character dies, focusing on Affleck as a widowed father raising a precocious daughter.

Lopez barely makes it to the 12-minute mark as Gertrude, loving wife of hotshot Manhattan music publicist Ollie Trinke who dies during childbirth. The tragedy leaves Ollie distraught, distressed — and, evidently, too traumatized to fully grasp the rudiments of changing diapers.

Does Ollie hire a housekeeper or babysitter? No way: In this shamelessly contrived comedy, seemingly smart people must repeatedly do dumb things to keep the plot from grinding to a complete halt.

Ollie and his daughter — named Gertie, after her late mother — move to Highlands, N.J., to live with Bart (George Carlin), Ollie’s widowed dad, who’s employed by the local public works department. Ollie leaves Gertie in Bart’s care while he commutes to his Manhattan office. Naturally, Bart eventually rebels against this imposition, and, just as naturally, he picks the day of an important publicity event to leave Ollie literally holding the baby.

The stressed-for-success exec buckles under the pressure of caring for a bawling infant while entertaining a Hard Rock Cafe-full of impatient TV and print reporters. So he snaps at the press, makes a rude comment about his tardy client — Will Smith, no less — and is canned.

Years pass. Ollie can’t find employment as a publicist so he’s stuck in a dead-end job alongside his father. He’s a loving and devoted father for 8-year-old Gertie (Raquel Castro), but he’s still too hung up on his dearly departed wife to seek a love life.

However, he does occasionally check out a porno tape from the back room of his neighborhood videostore. This attracts the attention of a perky store clerk, Maya (Liv Tyler), who selflessly offers to give him a “mercy hump.” They’re interrupted, but a tentative romance blooms.

“Jersey Girl” begins to build toward its predictably schmaltzy climax when Ollie lands an interview for a Manhattan PR job thanks to a former colleague (Jason Biggs). Unfortunately, the interview is on the very afternoon of Gertie’s school musical revue. But wait, there’s more: Gertie insists she doesn’t want to live in Manhattan. Hence, Ollie must choose between a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity and pleasing his 8-year-old daughter.

Affleck hits all the right notes while conveying Ollie’s conflicting attitudes and emotions. He also develops an affecting father-daughter dynamic with Castro, a well-cast newcomer who’s appreciably more natural than many other child actors. On several occasions, however, the script stoops to cheap gags that undercut Affleck’s efforts to sustain a believable character.

For example, at one point Ollie agrees to take Gertie to any Broadway show she chooses. She picks “Sweeney Todd,” cuing a scene in which Ollie is shocked to discover what the show is about. Ollie, who was a sophisticated music publicist in Manhattan, knows absolutely nothing about one of the most famous Broadway musicals of the last quarter-century. Yeah, right.

Tyler and Carlin handle their supporting roles with spirited aplomb — so does Lopez, for that matter — and Will Smith is a good sport in an unbilled cameo as himself. Matt Damon and Jason Lee are even funnier during their fleeting appearances as advertising execs who admire Ollie’s nerve but refuse to give him a job.

In terms of production values, “Jersey Girl” marks a considerable leap forward from Kevin Smith’s earlier, grungier work. (Indeed, Vilmos Zsigmond’s ace lensing is almost too beautiful for pic’s own good.) In just about every other respect, however, the comedy represents a step in the wrong direction.

It’s worth noting that almost every title prominently displayed in Maya’s videostore is a Miramax release. “Jersey Girl” doubtless will be stocked on a bottom shelf there very, very soon.

Jersey Girl

Production

A Miramax Films release of a View Askew production. Produced by Scott Mosier. Executive producers, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Jonathan Gordon. Co-producer, Laura Greenlee. Directed, written by Kevin Smith.

Crew

Camera (DeLuxe color), Vilmos Zsigmond; editors, Kevin Smith, Scott Mosier; music, James Venable; production designer, Robert Holtzman; art director, Elise Viola; set decorator, Diane Lederman; costume designer, Juliet Polcsa; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Glen Trew; associate producer, Phil Benson; assistant director, Michael Lerman; casting, Amy Kaufman. Reviewed at Edwards Marq*e 23, Houston, March 4, 2004. (In South by Southwest Film Festival, Austin, Texas.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Ollie Trinke - Ben Affleck Maya - Liv Tyler Bart Trinke - George Carlin Arthur Brickman - Jason Biggs Gertie Trinke - Raquel Castro Block - Mike Starr Greenie - Stephen Root Gertrude - Jennifer Lopez PR Exec No. 1 - Jason Lee PR Exec No. 2 - Matt Damon Will Smith - Himself

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