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Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler tidy up the suburbs in Kevin Smith's 'Jersey Girl'

By Richard von Busack

IT'S ANOTHER TALE of the humanization of Ben Affleck. In Jersey Girl, he plays Oliver Trinke, the prince of New York music publicists, applauded by his staff of 150. Ollie marries a princess--Jennifer Lopez, playing Gertrude, a book-jacket editor. Together, the since-sundered "Bennifer" do some stiff celebrity clowning that's like a guest appearance at an awards ceremony. Affleck's fiberglasslike smoothness may not have given Lopez anything to hang on to, but she doesn't give an inch onscreen either. One sequence--a recycled Lucille Ball bit, where she's pouting about her pregnancy--is easily Lopez's low-water mark in the movies.

But after she drops out of the picture Affleck matches her with his own personal worst: pantomiming his woe at a funeral scene that won't end. Director Kevin Smith's shoot-it-and-to-hell-with-it aesthetic increases the frost of Affleck's glacial acting, as gutless as a Hostess Twinkie. There are great actors--Mitchum, Brando, Morgan Freeman--who have been able to show us their amused dislike of the eager world. By contrast, Affleck's contemptuous boredom is something an audience ought to take personally.

This, as it turns out, is just the preamble to the real story, which takes place in a dingy house in Highlands, N.J. After Trinke gets fired for bad-mouthing the press, he moves in with his zany, profane dad (George Carlin, no relief) to raise the child he had with Gertrude. She grows into Raquel Castro, one of those powerhouse kid actors whose performances are about as spontaneous as grand opera. Ollie takes up his father's job for public works, driving a sprinkler truck, and we are left to with the question of whether he'll go back to New York or stick around with a cute but salty video-store owner (Liv Tyler) who has a crush on him.

Cater to the suburbs, or deal with the city and its complexities? In creating this stale mall movie, Smith has made his choice. When New York City is represented only by a Broadway theater and Central Park, and when cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond brings out the leafiness of the Garden State, it's easy to pick Jersey. Affleck seethes over his choice: his crisis catalyzed over one of those damned school plays that his daughter needs him at, which conflicts with his Important Business Engagement. Actor Will Smith makes a cameo to endorse the family life to Affleck, as if the latter were tedious chat-show host Mike Douglas. "If I didn't have all the damned kids, I wouldn't have to make all these blockbusters," Smith confides, explaining how a man who was so good in Six Degrees of Separation could be so dead in The Wild Wild West. As many terrible films have been made because of the necessity of feeding children as have been made because of drugs, booze and unmarried lust. A man has to put away his childish things, but Smith, director of Clerks and Dogma, might as well be Garry Marshall here. Jersey Girl is a mural for the Tomb of the Independent Movie.

Jersey Girl (PG-13; 103 min.), directed and written by Kevin Smith, photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond and starring Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler and Raquel Castro, opens Friday.

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From the March 24-31, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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