Director Kevin Smith says his warm new movie, 'Jersey Girl,' wasn't made for critics. Good thing. A frank exchange with NEWSWEEK's David Ansen.
March 29 issue - In "Jersey Girl," the creator of such funny, edgy cult hits as "Clerks" and "Chasing Amy" spins the surprisingly mainstream and sentimental tale of New York publicist Ollie Trinke (Ben Affleck), whose glam life comes crashing down when his wife (Jennifer Lopez) dies in childbirth. Overwhelmed by having to raise his daughter, he has a meltdown that costs him his career. His dreams shattered, he moves back home to Jersey with his father (George Carlin), and spends seven years driving a street sweeper. Torn between his love for his daughter (Raquel Castro) and his longing for Manhattan, between his loyalty to his late wife and the frisky attentions of a video clerk (Liv Tyler), Ollie faces some hard choices.
DAVID ANSEN: "Jersey Girl" is a very brave movie in the sense that you're certainly going to surprise your fans.
KEVIN SMITH: Definitely the 13- and 14-year-old boys who loved "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" can find no purchase in this movie, because it's kind of about the three tiers of maturity, right? Having a job or a career, getting married, having a kid. With the exception of showing Liv Tyler in her bra in the shower, there's not much for them to latch onto. But thankfully the fan base isn't made up just of that. People who jumped onboard with "Clerks" have grown up with us, so they're married and having kids. "Chasing Amy" is not really that different from "Jersey Girl," as much as it's a mixture of comedy and drama, and about relationships‹we just swapped out the lesbian for a 7-year-old girl. "Dogma" certainly didn't appeal just to the fart-joke crowd.
I thought of "Chasing Amy" as I was watching this. It's my favorite of your films.
Thanks. Mine, too.
But "Jersey Girl" isn't my favorite.
It's obviously a personal movie for you, but it felt like you hadn't digested everything. It felt cliched, and it slipped into sentimentality.
When you start dealing with subject matter like being married and raising a child, yeah, it's definitely going to be viewed by some as cliche, because it's a pretty universal story. When I finished the screenplay, Scott Mosher, my longtime producer, said, "This is the most accessible script you've ever written." But that didn't occur to me when I was writing it.
Ben Affleck has to carry the movie alone‹at a time when the media seem to want him to fail.
He's being punished because he had a very public relationship. But for five films now he's kind of been my proxy‹just a way better-looking proxy. He's a guy whose acting I really adore. I can watch him in anything‹even the movies that are supposed to be s--t. But he was at this point where he was being cast in role after role as a man with a gun, you know? Man in tights jumping off buildings. Man almost singlehandedly beating the Japanese in World War II. Actors by nature want to inhabit characters that they'd never be in real life. I'm sure he doesn't want to hear this, but Ben is always best when he's playing himself, essentially. In real life, he's very charming‹a funny guy, erudite, good to be around.
Everybody who meets him says that. What's interesting is that very rarely does all of that charm make it to the screen. I'm trying to figure out what's missing. Part of it, I think, is something that you can't control. It's the way his face is made. It's almost like there aren't quite enough planes in it. There are certain actors‹Meryl Streep is a perfect example‹who can let you know exactly what they're thinking by the slightest flush of their skin. Ben can't do that. But I did think he had a lot of good moments here. Jennifer Lopez is perfectly fine, although she's hardly in the movie. I assume you made some cuts because of the negative publicity.
The only thing in the movie that was cut because of their off-screen relationship was a 12-second shot of them getting married. When they didn't get married in real life, I knew it would be a distraction. You run the risk of people starting to chuckle.
Let's talk about some specific scenes. There's a soliloquy where Ben is talking to his little girl‹she's just a baby and can't understand what he's saying. I know it's supposed to be an emotional centerpiece. He's talking about how much he loved her mother, and how torn up he is. It seemed to me that everything that he was saying had already been said implicitly. You were underlining and spelling everything out.
Or just giving Ben a really nice monologue, you know? Obviously, I love Ben's delivery. It didn't work for you‹I get it. But that's the moment where everyone starts crying in the theater, so obviously it wasn't a bad decision. Some people maybe need stuff underlined for them. Because I've made movies that pushed the edge of the envelope in the past, I get penalized when I make one that doesn't. Some people are, like, "Well, it's not your riskiest movie." What am I, a stuntman? I got in the movies to tell the stories that I wanted to tell. So, maybe this time around I lose some of the critics who have liked my edgier stuff.
At the screening I went to, there was a woman behind me, who was not a critic, and she loved it. She thought it was incredibly touching.
Why doesn't she write for NEWSWEEK, for heaven's sakes?
I'll give her a call.[Laughter] My objection is not that "Jersey Girl" isn't cutting edge. It's that you were falling back on some old, hackneyed tricks. There's a scene when our hero is running through the streets to try to make it to his daughter's performance at the class show. We've seen this so many times before.
When I wrote that scene, I hadn't really seen it anywhere. And then "About a Boy" came out, and then there was that movie "Uptown Girls" and "Love Actually"‹and "School of Rock." I thought, "Good God. We all had the same idea, essentially."
And the heroes are always rushing, and we're supposed to worry if they'll make it.
You'll find this really funny‹or sad, considering your take on it‹but that shot of him running up the hill is my favorite shot of the movie. It's the one that I think encapsulates what it's like to be a father. But was it an original thought? Probably not.
He has to run because the road in town is blocked, and I couldn't help but ask myself, Well, how did all those other people get to the show? They weren't running! It's picky, I know.
David, this is the part of your job that would be the most irritating to me if I were a critic. Sometimes you just have to kick back and suspend disbelief and not ask, How did they all get there?
But as you know, you're more inclined to do that when a movie is working for you.
And when you become disengaged from the movie, you start to see things.
You start to take it apart. Look, at the end of the day I'm not an inventive or very creative filmmaker. Here's a perfect example, a defining moment. I went to see "The Matrix"‹the first one, not the bad ones. So I'm sitting there going, like, "Wow, I've never seen anything like this. These dudes are really creative." I thought, I will never be that guy. I cannot reinvent the wheel. All I can do is add a spoke to an already existing wheel, and hopefully it's my spoke and it kind of stands out a little bit. Once I accepted that, it was kind of liberating.
But "Clerks" is a movie I'd never seen before. "Chasing Amy" is a movie I'd never seen before. "Dogma" is a movie I'd never seen. "Jersey Girl" is a movie that I've seen a lot.
Uh-huh. But you haven't seen my version.
One nice surprise is the look of the movie. You used to be famous for not moving the camera.
If you use a great cinematographer like Vilmos Zsigmond you're guaranteed a great-looking movie. I actually learned to move the camera. Working under that dude's tutelage was a very beneficial film school.
There are also some very funny moments‹the scene where Matt Damon and Jason Lee play advertising executives, or the fact that every girl in the class show wants to perform "Memory," from "Cats." But I did have a bit of a hard time believing that Ben's character would go for seven years without having sex.
Are you married?
All right, here's the thing. I've been married five years. Considering my body shape, I had the good fortune to have enough sex with different women before I got married. Once I got married, I realized I never wanted to f--- anyone else for the rest of my life. Even if my wife died. It's not just physical, though that's fantastic. Psychologically, I am tied to her. When you're really committed to somebody, forget it, man. It's impossible to think about f---ing somebody else.
Will Smith has a cameo playing himself, and inspires Ben's character to rethink his life.
Now that's a device I've used many times before. Did you have a problem with that, too? Did
you like anything in the movie? [Laughter]
Some of it I thought was very funny. You'd been warned how I felt about the movie, right?
Totally. And, honestly, it's cool. You've been such a supporter in the past that it doesn't bother me. And it's informative. It's kind of a watershed moment, because I always wanted to know what the face of the person who wasn't onboard with this movie was going to look like. Who is the person that doesn't like this movie? So now I‹
Now you know. It's me.
[Laughter] But it's actually kind of cool. It's not like you're gonna walk out of here going, "I was wrong, the movie is great." But at least you get to say your piece, and I get to say my piece. This feels good. I don't think you are going to sit down with a dude that has directed "Deuce Bigelow," and go, "Let's talk about how I didn't like your movie." It's like, well, at least it's f---ing NEWSWEEK, for God's sakes. At least they cared.
© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.