Oh grow up

Kevin Smith, not Bennifer, takes the fall for Jersey Girl

Efforts will probably be made to pin Jersey Girl's failure on the bad juju of its leads, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez. The cinematic couple who gave us last year's critically lambasted Gigli are baaaack. But it would be hard to blame Jersey's problems solely on the charisma-sucking black hole of the Ben-Lo relationship. Instead it is director Kevin Smith's weak scenario and banally irreverent dialogue that contribute more fundamentally to the film's lame sitcom tone.

In this Cinderella story in reverse, Affleck goes from prince to pauper in the blink of an eye. He plays high-powered publicist Ollie Trinke, whose charmed life is dealt a sudden double-whammy of bad luck.

First his adored wife (a Smith fantasy woman — she has the body of a centerfold and the mouth of a long-haul trucker) dies in childbirth during the film's opening. Ollie is left to raise his baby daughter solo, apparently unaware of wealthy Manhattanites' custom of employing nannies. His stress leads to a disastrous incident when he insults one of his clients in front of a huge gathering of the press and his career officially goes down the toilet.

With his tail between his legs, Ollie heads back to Jersey and the absurdly bottom-rung position of city sanitation worker, working alongside his foul-mouthed father Bart (George Carlin) and his two best friends (a return to the wisecracking guy pack of Clerks). Smith's vision of life is so rudimentary there seem to be only two available positions on life's pendulum: tippy-top and butt-dragging bottom.

Ollie's now 6-year-old daughter Gertie (Raquel Castro), who has the soul of her down-to-earth, from-the-block mama, thrives in this blue-collar paradise. But her daddy longs to return to the big city.

Considering Smith's own straight-outta-Jersey pedigree and recent daddy-status, his Garden State morality tale feels a little self-serving in its treacly affirmation that it's family and community, not money and fame, that make the world go round. That "just folks" message is a shout out to the little people still laboring in tiny town anonymity who see Smith as some kind of patron saint to every overgrown kid living in their parents' basement.

If Jersey Girl proves anything, it's that despite his money and fame, Smith is still a Jersey convenience store clerk at heart. You can take the boy out of Jersey, but you can't take the Jersey out of the boy as Smith's perpetual acid rain of tit jokes and below-the-belt crudity prove. Though Smith tries to lay some grown-up wisdom on his audience, his juvenile, stoner's sensibility is like a slasher movie monster that refuses to die. Every character, including 6-year-old Gertie, speaks in the potty-mouthed cadences of Smith himself.

When not reverting to gutter humor, Smith writes the kind of jokes that have stocked "suddenly mommy" films from Mr. Mom to Baby Boom: baby shit, playing doctor, baby discovering Daddy and Maya in the shower together.

Affleck has always done better as a cagey, wise-guy than in earnest mode, and Jersey Girl milks him like a sentiment-cow, demanding gallon upon gallon of feeling. The effort is clearly taxing for Affleck. The strain cracks through the pretty boy surface as he struggles to summon paternal love from his gut.

He's not the only one straining. Jersey Girl practically herniates itself trying to milk sensitivity from Smith's shopworn family values scenario.