Kevin Smith's latest film shows what wonders a director can work with lead players who, almost to a man, can't technically act. In a particularly telling moment, star Ben Affleck has to deliver a tearful monologue in the presence of a tender-cheeked infant; audiences from Tenafly to Timbuktu will recognize that the tot easily performs him off the screen.
Still, this is far from the "Gigli II" that half the Western world seemed to expect. J. Lo is in it, sure, but she's gone from the story in a matter of minutes, replaced as the object of Affleck's affections by Liv Tyler. (Smart males refer to this as "trading up.") Child actress Raquel Castro -- who plays the Jersey girl of the title -- has a disarming presence that extends to her character's brattiest tantrums. And even gentle Ben comes out smelling reasonably rose-like, benefiting immensely from the assured flow of Smith's generous, genial script.
As Ollie Trinke, Affleck gets to embody the fall and rise of a single dad -- from the top of the public-relations heap to the bottom of the public-works labor pool and (maybe) back again. Tragedy and its attendant stresses conspire to send successful Manhattanite Ollie scurrying back to his birthplace of Highlands, N.J. (the "gateway to Sandy Hook"); laid low by ill fortune, he's forced to drive a street sweeper while shunting off the rearing of his daughter, Gertie (Castro), to his crusty old father (George Carlin). The crux of the story has Ollie learning responsibility and changing his definition of "success" to refer to homier pursuits -- a process facilitated by the ministrations of Maya (Tyler), a sharp-tongued video-store clerk who can see the genuine good in him.
OK, so it isn't exactly avant-garde material: A major plot point about a regrettably scheduled school recital is pilfered straight from the Brady Bunch. But there's a street-corner honesty to Smith's script that makes it seem, if not new, at least still vital. Parenthood stops being such a cliché when you see someone you care about (or, God forbid, yourself) going through it, and that confluence of surprise and familiarity marks "Jersey Girl" as a mostly thrilling chapter in Smith's development as a filmmaker. His past movies have required us to wade through a lot of locker-room windbaggery to get to their moments of giddy transcendence. This one is a stone grin practically all the way through, bridging Smith's trenchcoat-mafia insouciance and soccer-dad dramatics without compromising either. The Ollie/Maya relationship, for instance, has its sexual shenanigans, but they're somehow softer-edged than before, more world-wise in their understanding of the idiocies all of us can commit. (And in one brief but affecting shot -- an implied homage to the Twin Towers -- the director shows an uncommon talent for grafting colossal concerns onto a small story.)
Smith has said that the movie is a valentine to his wife, but I took it more as an admission of new-parent anxieties: What if I had to do this on my own? Am I really good enough to be a dad? And if I am, does that mean that I'm finally, you know, an adult? With "Jersey Girl," the former Silent Bob becomes just that. While lesser artists focus on growing old gracefully, he's figured out that real maturity means being grateful you're getting to grow old at all.