Saturday, September 18, 2004

Let's end the week with a few video reviews...

‘Jersey Girl’
Being a new father myself, I’m still learning how much having a kid changes your world. So is filmmaker Kevin Smith, whose “Jersey Girl” is his ode to fathers and fatherhood.
Ollie (Ben Affleck) is recently widowed, a high-powered public relations executive in New York City who now has to raise his late wife’s daughter. But Ollie discovers his fast-paced professional life and being a single father don’t go together, and ends up moving back in with his dad (George Carlin) in New Jersey for what he thinks is a temporary spell. Will Ollie learn to become the father he needs to be?
Smith’s biggest strength as a filmmaker has always been his scriptwriting. His movies such as “Clerks” and “Chasing Amy” have the gift of gab, with characters who love to talk and do so in honest, disarmingly profane ways about life, love and sex. In glimmers, “Jersey Girl” has something sharp to say about the commitments of being a dad.
But mostly, the distinctive voice of Smith that made “Clerks” and “Chasing Amy” so compelling is missing here. “Jersey Girl” is formulaic and sentimental in a way Smith’s other movies never were. It’s as if he sat down and said, “Now I’m going to go Hollywood,” which he does, complete with a cameo from Will Smith.
That said, “Jersey Girl” is often a passable time-waster. Affleck is charming and decent, except in a few scenes where he appallingly overacts. Liv Tyler, as a cute video store clerk Ollie falls for, is a perky scene-stealer, as is young Raquel Castro as Ollie’s daughter.
There’s some amusing belly laughs here, but you can practically feel the edges smoothed off Smith’s raw dialogue where the movie was cut from an “R” to a “PG-13.”
“Girl” does look a lot better than Smith’s other movies. Professional cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond gives New Jersey suburbia a glossy beauty. But all that prettiness doesn’t make it feel sincere.
Too many scenes don’t really work, including an extended homage to Broadway’s macabre play “Sweeney Todd.” It’s hard not to feel you’ve seen it all before, right down to the climactic scene staged at a school play, where the big drama is whether or not the dad will show up in time. Gosh, do you think Dad will make it?
Hopefully “Jersey Girl” will prove to be a minor misstep in Smith’s interesting career. It says something that after “Girl’s” mediocre box office his next movie is a sequel to his first, “Clerks.” Back to the drawing board?
**1/2 of four

‘The Girl Next Door’
Truth in advertising: If you watch commercials for “The Girl Next Door,” it looks like a disposable, clichéd horny teen-movie-of the week.
But it’s actually a somewhat brainy, sweet-natured glimpse at the craziness of life in your senior year of high school, when impulsive passions and big dreams for the future battle for dominance.
It also had the most misleading marketing campaign I’ve seen in a long time, making it look like “American Pie Part XVI,” when it’s far closer in spirit to those great 1980s John Hughes comedies.
Matthew (Emile Hirsch) is an overachieving high school senior, about to graduate but still a virgin, with the nagging feeling he hasn’t done anything exciting in his life. He and his buddies talk about sex all the time, but nothing happens. That is, until the stunning, kind Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert) moves in next door to Matthew. She and Matthew become friends, and then something more. Everything’s going great, until Matthew learns Danielle is also an adult-movie star. Can they possibly stay together?
Charming actors and a genial sense of fun makes “The Girl Next Door,” basically a 2004 remix of “Risky Business,” feel fresh and fun, despite the sleazy subject matter.
It’s still a typical teen movie, full of sex jokes, near-nudity (more in the unrated version) and clueless kids, but “The Girl Next Door” has a thoughtful heart most of its cousins lack. If it were made 20 years ago, it probably would’ve starred John Cusack (and been a lot less raunchy, of course).
Hirsch and Cuthbert bring an unforced, easy chemistry to their roles. “Door” also has some scene-stealing supporting actors, including a wild-eyed, frantic Timothy Olyphant as Danielle’s psychotic pimp/manager, Kelly. His character is that rarity in this kind of movie — completely unpredictable, hard to take your eyes off of.
Unfortunately, “Door’s” good energy all starts to flag in the final half-hour, where the plot becomes rather ridiculous, leaping into the adult-film industry and all kinds of implausible nonsense. But for the most part, “Girl Next Door” is a pretty good time in the mostly dismal world of teen movies.
*** of four

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