But Smith, now a husband and father who just buried his own dad a year ago, has confused maturing with softening, growing up with giving in. He's always claimed to be a sellout, the defense mechanism of the independent filmmaker who came of age well aboveground, but Jersey Girl feels like the ultimate act of surrender, product that could have been made by anyone; it's as generic as white-label beer. Everything about the movie, from its premise of a single father raising a kid all alone to its school-musical finale, has the bland taste of reheated leftovers. It might just as easily have been called About an Uptown Jersey Girl Actually, and those are just its predecessors of extremely recent vintage.
The movie opens a decade ago, with Manhattan music-biz publicist Ollie Trinke (Ben Affleck) romancing Gertrude, a woman who looks very much like Jennifer Lopez (who has been all but eradicated from the movie and its promotional materials). Ollie and Gertrude's relationship exists for but a few minutes -- just long enough for you to remember and forget Gigli and Bennifer and everything the E! network has run for a year; she's a non-issue, blessedly. Lopez is killed off early, during childbirth, in a scene that has all the emotional impact of an actor sighing off-screen -- though some did cheer her death during a recent promotional screening, as though she were a Bond villain on the wrong end of a razor-edged boomerang.
Ollie, a powerful and ostensibly rich man, can't even change a diaper or hire a nanny; he leaves baby Gertie with his father (George Carlin), who loves the company, but loathes the responsibility. When he can take it no more, and of course on the very day Ollie's to introduce a then-Fresh Prince Will Smith to the music press at the Hard Rock Café, the senior Trinke forces Ollie to take the kid -- who, of course, ruins the event and gets Daddy fired, forcing baby and father to move back to Jersey. We are left to wonder, among other things, why Ollie doesn't just pay for some help; instead, Smith douses Affleck and the newborn in buckets of baby powder, and we're left gasping, as the clichés take up all the air in the room.
Seven years later, Ollie's driving a garbage truck and still living with his father and Gertie, now played by Raquel Castro, plucked from the Precious 'n' Precious Movie Kid bin and a dead ringer for Lopez. Ollie wants his old life back -- he has an interview with Matt Damon and Jason Lee in one terrific scene, in which Ollie discovers he's a role model for all the wrong reasons -- but is torn between the city and Maya (Liv Tyler), who works in a video store that carries only Miramax titles -- one of Smith's few in-joke indulgences, in a film that's as interested in milking tears as it is inducing laughs. It all feels very The Family Man without the fantasy element, though Smith does ask us to suspend reality a number of times. I have two words: Sweeney Todd.
Jersey Girl is the first Smith movie to look professional -- it was shot by one-time Robert Altman collaborator Vilmos Zsigmond, who convinced Smith that it's actually OK to move the camera -- but that's often just its problem; it's too polished, too much a piece of product. No matter how self-indulgent and self-referential Smith's films had become -- to the point that they existed solely for the fetishists -- there was always a ramshackle appeal about them; you admired his movies for their sloppiness and energy and their sneering determination to stay away from cheap, manipulative sentimentalism. But all the characters in the syrupy Jersey Girl look as if they're on the verge of tearing up and breaking down; most egregious is a scene in which Affleck delivers a tear-stained monologue about life and death and second chances, like a man who's never cried in his life, though you'll forget all about it by the time Affleck's asked to perform a scene from a Broadway musical. Smith used to make movies to make fun of movies like Jersey Girl; now he's just another guy working the assembly line -- which won't make him a sellout, if no one buys it.