Kevin's Smith's 2004 film Jersey Girl is unlike any of the other films the director has ever made. It's not a raunchy, adult comedy in the vein of Chasing Amy or Mallrats, and it's not a fantastical allegory a la Dogma — it's just a great movie about what it means to be a father and how complicated the father-child relationship can get. Yet despite these themes and Smith's clear hopes of making the movie resonate with fathers and children everywhere, Jersey Girl got somewhat of a bad rap and pretty bad reviews. But looking back on it, it's worth asking if the criticism was unwarranted, because the way I see it, Jersey Girl is actually a pretty hilarious and touching film, and it remains a great movie to watch on Father's Day.
Jersey Girl tells the story of Ollie Trinke (Ben Affleck), a highly successful PR rep whose wife (Jennifer Lopez) dies suddenly in childbirth. After losing his job because of the intense demands brought on by raising a baby daughter by himself, Ollie moves back to Jersey to live with his own dad (played by a hilarious George Carlin), gets a job as a garbage man, and raises his daughter there. There's a lot to enjoy about the film; for one thing, it features plenty of Smith's trademark one-liners, though they're toned down for a less R-rated audience. Then there's the young girl who plays Gertie, Raquel Castro, who's adorable and holds her own against Carlin and Affleck. And then there's the message of the film, that one's success doesn't necessarily only come from one's profession, but that family and relationships matter just as much.
What makes Jersey Girl so interesting is that it bestows this message upon a male lead. It may be a bit hard to imagine now given how much progress has been made with women in the workforce and work-life balance, but in the early millennium it was pretty odd to think that a man would choose to stay home and be a dad, rather than go out and be a traditional professional worker. Ollie starts his move thinking that his life is unfair because he's stuck in a small town raising his kid, instead of living in New York City as a PR rep to the stars. But as he learns throughout the film, and what Carlin's character tries to teach him, is that no matter where you live or what your job is, you'll always be the most important person in the world to somebody. It might be a celebrity, but it might be just your own kid, and that might be even more important. Ollie matters a great deal to little Gertie — it just takes him awhile to realize that and accept that what he has is just as good as his old life. The film teaches you to embrace the hand of cards you're dealt, rather than feel entitled to something different.
It's a great message that resonates with many, especially families, but it didn't make Jersey Girl an instant success. Thanks to Affleck's tabloid-friendly relationship with Lopez, the attention given to "Bennifer" swallowed up any of their film work, and after the bomb that was Gigli, seeing the stars on screen together seemed like something no one wanted. It's no surprise that Jersey Girl, wasn't a hit. It made only $25 million under a production budget of $35 million and received middling to low ratings from critics.
Fans of Smith's may have also been hesitant to hop on board with a family-oriented film from the same guy who made Clerks. "The 13- and 14-year-old boys who loved Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back can find no purchase in this movie," Smith said in an interview with ViewaSkew, "because it's kind of about the three tiers of maturity, right?" — meaning the stages of being a child, being a parent, and watching your child be a parent, all of which are discussed in Jersey Girl. The movie clearly meant a lot to Smith; as he went on to detail throughout the film's PR campaign, Jersey Girl is his most personal film, although maybe not one that not everyone else understands.
The ideas of maturity and parenthood, reflected in Smith's own life, are ones his teenage fans may not yet understand, but they make Jersey Girl is a great Father's Day movie. It's as if Smith himself grew up from his previous filmmaking career and totally nailed the responsibility, worry, laughter, tears, and adventure that is having a kid, but knew that plenty of people, like Ollie and perhaps even Smith's fans, longed for those old glory days. But everyone has to grow up, and Ollie may not realize that he's holding on to a kind of life that was only temporary. Being a father, though, is forever.