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Rethinking Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl

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Jersey Girl wasn't a bad movie, it was just an unremarkable one despite some good scenes. It's sweet yet predictable, it's got a heart but not a distinct personality. You could switch out most of the cast with other rom-com actors of the time (e.g., Kate Hudson, Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Aniston, Ben Stiller) and the results would be roughly the same: the movie is one that you've already seen without having watched it. It was not, as the early hype had put it, Kevin Smith's Annie Hall, but it wasn't Kevin Smith's Curse of the Jade Scorpion either.

Thing is, there was a very good, unrealized movie buried in the saccharine pleasantness of Jersey Girl. That hidden movie was all about an important relationship and an indispensable cast member, and it would have played to Kevin Smith's strengths as a writer.

This very good, unrealized movie wasn't about a single-father played by Ben Affleck raising his adorable daughter; this movie was about an old man played by George Carlin putting up with his a**hole son.

Carlin first joined the Kevin Smith repertory with Dogma, playing Cardinal Glick (who oddly wasn't praying to a building or Joe Pesci). He'd also give useful hitchhiking tips to Jay and Silent Bob in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. What Jersey Girl showed in snippets was that softer side of Carlin seen not so much in Bill & Ted but in interviews and occasionally on his sitcom The George Carlin Show that only lasted two seasons. (I watched most of the show back when I was a kid in the 90s. All I knew about Carlin back then was the baseball vs. football bit and Shining Time Station.)

Carlin was at his best when he was on stage being himself, building new jokes and routines rather than just recycling his greatest hits. The man was an insightful comedy machine. On The George Carlin Show, the material was its best when it felt like George Carlin was comfortable and at the reins. It's a shame he was never given a narrative film to be entirely himself; and even his show became a frustration, hijacked by other forces.

Given that Carlin's first love was stand-up, it seems unlikely that he would have wanted to step away from writing his own comedy for too long, but a feature with Kevin Smith might have been the ticket. Smith was a self-professed Carlin disciple, and he probably had something brewing. Here's an excerpt from a remembrance he wrote for Newsweek after Carlin's passing:

In 2001, George did me a solid when he accepted the part of the orally fixated hitchhiker who knew exactly how to get a ride in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. When he wrapped his scene in that flick, I thanked him for making the time, and he said, "Just do me a favor: Write me my dream role one day." When I inquired what that'd be, he offered, "I wanna play a priest who strangles children."

It was a classic Carlin thing to say: a little naughty and a lot honest. I always figured there'd be time to give George what he asked for. Unfortunately, he left too soon.

If only there'd been more time.

In an early draft of Jersey Girl, Smith had Bill Murray in mind to play Ollie Trinké's dad Bart; though, let's be honest, the film probably would have been better with Murray as Ollie Trinké. Carlin wound up in the role in the end and was one of the film's saving graces. The fact that Carlin comes across so naturally in Jersey Girl hinted at that untapped potential for the unrealized film when I first saw it. If you could harness more of that naturalism, unfetter it from the schmaltzy kid stuff (i.e., strangle the children), and then play that against another solid actor, you could have some form of gold.

Affleck always had it in him to do well despite a string of stinkburgers in the early 2000s and the unfortunate media fiasco of J-Lo. If the hype of Jersey Girl as Annie Hall might have affected my feelings toward Smith's film, I'm sure the inescapable media fervor of Bennifer created some distaste for Ben Affleck at the time. Yet Affleck did a good job in a movie that was just okay.

The Jersey Girl we saw was just okay because it was a stroytelling tee ball game. You put a cute, innocent, infinitely good child on screen and it's an invitation to feel warm-hearted even if what happens is contrived and predictable. The child gets yelled at, you feel bad for the child and angry and the meanie who needs to make amends. However, you put two adult characters with lots of history together and lots of life on screen, and you have something more mature. It's not about easy emotional manipulation but a level of deep human observation; and few relationships are as complex as those between an aging parent and his or her grown-up child, especially if the child is a selfish prick like Ollie Trinké, especially if his dad is George Carlin.

An aging parent looks an adult child and maybe worries more: why can't this person pay the bills, why is this person single, why is this kid of mine not the way I wanted him/her to turn out? There are also questions of whether or not you could have raised the kid better, been there more, knocked more sense into the kid, and why the kid (more like "that fucking kid") can't be more grateful. An adult son or daughter deals with issues of obligation and resentment, of meeting parental expectations or undermining them; a hard-headedness about having all the answers or at least looking not as ignorant about life, and fear of becoming the worst aspects of whoever played parent.

Smart, adorable little children are blank slates who haven't disappointed their parents yet; adults are tangled-up balls of regret, which is nowhere near as cute.

This plays to Kevin Smith's strengths because it's about people generally on the level hanging out. Here would be two guys who are very much alike, love each other deeply even when they hate each other's guts, and probably wouldn't give an inch. Whereas Liv Tyler's character is just willing to sleep with Trinké and be his easy love interest as soon as she's on screen, Trinké's father in the unrealized film wouldn't have any of that bullshit. (Not that he'd sleep with his son, but you know what I mean.) And that's something else in the unrealized film: nothing would be so easy, not the lessons learned, not the way people feel about each other, not the emotions people feel. Again, it's that essential complication of parents and their adult kids, especially fathers and sons.

But there's another reason this unrealized film would have more at stake and possibly been more complicated, and it all has to do with Kevin Smith's father -- by all indications a good guy, working class, raised his kids right. Though Smith's father had been in and out of good health for some time, like Carlin's passing, no one could have predicted when the tragedy was going to happen. And to that, it's hard to say how reflective and philosophical you can feel about people until they're gone.

That unrealized movie is full of reflections on fathers and sons, and it's a way of trying something different that doesn't have to do with mere presentation. You get a sense that in most of the movies that Smith writes, it's drawn pretty much from his own experience -- with relationships, with jobs, with friends, with religion. It would have been great to hear more about about his old man in film form, and it seems like a lot of his old man was in Bart Trinké. He's more interesting than anyone else in the movie, even little Gertie (sorry, kid), because he's the character Smith might have cared about most if the character existed in real life (and he probably did).

I won't say what the story of this unrealized film should have been about other than being about Bart Trinké and his adult son Oliver. I won't say how I think Kevin Smith should have done everything because these are his characters built on his real relationships. To say any of that is presumptuous, as if this sort of second-guessing isn't presumptuous enough. (Though I think Boys is at least a decent stand-in title for whatever the actual title of this unrealized film would have been. Better than A Very Good Unrealized Film, at least.)

What I can say is that there is a relationship between fathers and sons -- biological fathers and biological sons, surrogate fathers and surrogate sons, fictional fathers and fictional sons, people who are like a father and people who are like a son -- that is real, honest, complex, and even mature.

And I go back to Annie Hall because that's such a loaded unit of comparison where some of this started. It was a mature film, but very much a Woody Allen film. If Annie Hall was a departure for Woody Allen, or maybe a career-marker, it was because Allen constructed a deeper observation about life and relationships amid the silliness of the rest of the film. It culminates in those last lines in much the same way Allen's later (and at times deadly serious) masterpiece, Crimes and Misdemeanors, finds its thesis in its final moments. If those films mean something to you, to recite those lines or hear them causes a little catch in your throat.

Smith can be an incredibly good raconteur if you get him talking, and when he talks about what he loves -- not the pop culture stuff, but his family or his friends or the people he admires -- there is something there that sometimes causes his voice to quaver, sometimes out of delight and sometimes out of sadness. It's that trembling quality, whatever causes it, that makes something mature; everything else is like clip-on ties and tortoise shell glasses without prescription lenses -- boys and girls playing grown-up.

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Hubert Vigilla
Hubert VigillaEditor-at-Large   gamer profile

Vigilla is a writer living in Brooklyn, which makes him completely more + disclosures


 


 



Filed under... #flixist originals #Kevin Smith #top stories

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