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(2004) (Ben Affleck, Raquel Castro) (PG-13)

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Drama/Comedy: A hotshot music publicist finds his life and priorities changed when he becomes a single father and must raise a young daughter.
It's 1994 and Ollie Trinke (BEN AFFLECK) is on top of the world. Not only is he a wildly successful Manhattan music publicist, but he also has a beautiful girlfriend in Gertrude Steiney (JENNIFER LOPEZ). Things seem to be going their way when they're married and then find themselves expecting their first child.

Yet, a complication during labor leaves Ollie all alone to raise his young girl, Gertie. As a result, he moves in with his widowed father, Bart (GEORGE CARLIN), hoping he'll watch his granddaughter while Ollie continues to work. The resultant strain of trying to balance his personal and professional life eventually leads to an outburst that not only gets him fired, but also essentially leaves him blackballed in the industry, much to the dismay of his assistant, Arthur Brickman (JASON BIGGS).

Seven years later, Gertie (RAQUEL CASTRO) is a precious, little elementary school student while Ollie now works with Bart and his two friends, Greenie (STEPHEN ROOT) and Block (MIKE STAR), in the city's public works department. He isn't happy, however, since he still longs to return to his old field and has yet to reenter the dating world.

At a chance stop at the local video store, he and Gertie meet graduate student Maya (LIV TYLER) who takes an immediate interest in Ollie and his situation. The two dance between friendship and romance and Ollie finally begins to accept who and what he is. When a potential job comes his way, however, he must decide where his priorities, heart and best judgment lie.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
It's too bad when outside elements affect how people react to given movies. While it's impossible to view them in a mental vacuum shielded from personal, societal or cultural bias, some movies never have a fighting chance of succeeding. One such film was "Gigli." Granted, it was a bad film, but the overwhelming press about "Bennifer" -- a.k.a. the Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez union -- jaded people even before it came out.

Unfortunately for writer/director Kevin Smith, Affleck reportedly convinced then flame Lopez to appear with him in a second film, "Jersey Girl." Their failed romance and canceled wedding then caused Smith to do some major damage control in terms of how the two appear on the screen, including jettisoning their wedding scene lest viewers be removed from the film to participate in some "what if" and/or "if only" mental picturing.

While that might have been an overreaction -- particularly since Lopez's character was always intended to make an exit not long into the story -- I only hope that all of the attention on their failed romance (and first movie together) hasn't jaded viewers from seeing their second outing. That's because it's actually a quite enjoyable if slightly uneven and not particularly novel dramedy about parents and kids.

Once viewers get past the "Bennifer" aspect and hear what the plot's actually about, however, they're likely to have the "been there, seen that" reaction. After all, how many films have come down the pike featuring single adults suddenly thrust into parenthood or guardianship without any knowledge or patience to do the job? From the "Three Men and a Baby" films to the more recent "Uptown Girls," "My Baby's Daddy" and the upcoming "Raising Helen," we've seen just about every permeation of the setup imaginable.

Yet, despite its predictable and familiar nature, Smith actually manages to infuse some new life into the subject matter. That may come as a shock to both fans and detractors of the filmmaker who've either loved or hated his previous efforts such as "Clerks," "Dogma" and "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back." While this film isn't what one would consider a completely "mature" work -- there are still some leftover elements and stylings from his prior films -- it's certainly a promising step in that direction.

The resulting story elements, subplots and jokes might feel a little (or quite a bit) uneven for some viewers and there are some rough edges from time to time. In addition, some may feel that the various music video type montages (where the songs and their lyrics have been chosen to fit the situation or mood) are too amateurish and/or manipulative. There is some validity to such criticism.

Nevertheless, the good points -- and there are many -- help deflect or at least soften such points and make one forgive or at least overlook any such difficulties. I for one found most of the offering to be enjoyable, entertaining and yes, even touching.

Beyond Smith's decently structured story and well-written dialogue (some of which is terrific, although that won't come as a surprise to the filmmaker's fans), it's the performances that really make the film so engaging. All of which caught me off guard since Affleck ("Paycheck," "Daredevil") is in the lead role.

While the actor is popular among the masses, he's never been known for possessing award-caliber acting abilities (although there have been hints of strong points in certain films). And when he starts off shaky here, I had that sinking "Oh no, here we go again" feeling. Shock of all shocks, however, and following a rough crying scene, he actually manages to subdue some of his normal mannerisms and actually deliver a good and, more importantly, sympathetic performance.

Which is a good thing since he's constantly overshadowed by seven-year-old Raquel Castro (making her big screen debut) who's so good and natural on the screen that you'd swear she's been acting for decades. Rather than suffering from or at least being hampered by the "too cute" aura that bedeviled Macaulay Culkin and needs to be shaken off by Dakota Fanning, Castro is a wonder to behold. If she can (and wants to) sustain such abilities as she grows up, she'll be an acting force to be reckoned with in Hollywood.

Lopez ("Maid in Manhattan," "Enough") is decent in her small role, but it's George Carlin ("Dogma," "The Prince of Tides") and Liv Tyler ("Dr. T & the Women," the "Lord of the Rings" movies) who add some nice flourishes and comedic touches to their characters that make them welcome additions to the story. There's also a certain cameo appearance (among a few) that I won't give away except to say that it involves a big star and it goes from being just what looks like a brief joke to one of the film's better and more touching moments.

There are other such moments scattered throughout the production that range from being funny (including a montage of kids talking about their parents) to sentimental and even inspired (the inclusion of two stagings of the Broadway musical "Sweeney Todd" is a nice and unexpected addition).

With a heartwarming ending (that includes one of the aforementioned symbolic music numbers that's a perfect fit in my opinion) and enough entertaining and decent modifications to the familiar plot, Smith has delivered an enjoyable offering that seems to signal a telling transformation in his filmmaking career.

While I didn't expect to like "Jersey Girl" -- and there will be those who don't -- it only gets better as it progresses and by the time the ending rolled around, it worked for me. The film rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 26, 2004 / Posted March 26, 2004

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