This week the second Chicago International Documentary Festival will screen Mark Brian Smith's fascinating Overnight, which chronicles the precipitous rise and fall of indie filmmaker Troy Duffy. A blue-collar kid from Boston and a giant in his own mind, Duffy hit the jackpot in March 1997 when Harvey Weinstein, the fabled cochairman of Miramax Films, bought Duffy's script for a post-Tarantino shoot-'em-up called The Boondock Saints and proclaimed him "a unique, exciting new voice in American movies." A year later Miramax pulled out of the deal, and though the project was eventually picked up by the smaller Franchise Pictures, it opened on a meager five screens and vanished a week later.
Duffy probably thought his story would turn out more like Kevin Smith's, an indie rags-to-riches legend that's been told so many times even Smith may wonder how true it is. A burly convenience-store cashier in Red Bank, New Jersey, he made the crude but brainy black-and-white comedy Clerks for $27,000, financing it with credit cards and using his friends as actors. It was a sleeper hit at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994, and was snapped up by Weinstein, whose shrewd marketing turned it into a $3.1 million grosser and Smith into a minor celebrity. Except for the dismal Mallrats (1995), Smith has stuck with Miramax ever since and watched his stock climb: Chasing Amy (1997), still his best movie, grossed over $12 million, and the cumbersome Dogma (1999) and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001) each pulled in over $30 million.
Unlike Troy Duffy, who seems to interpret his sudden wealth and fame as proof that he's been cheated all his life, Smith has always assessed his talent more modestly (and more accurately), and he's been remarkably loyal to the man who pulled him out of the Quik Stop and onto the national stage. "Harvey's a twisted father figure to Kevin," notes producer John Shestack in Peter Biskind's new book, Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film. Two months ago, when the book came out depicting Weinstein as a manipulative bastard consumed by ego and greed, Smith released a letter to the press defending his mentor as "the last, great movie mogul" and concluding, "In the dysfunctional family that is the movie biz, I couldn't ask for a better father. And while I can't put words in the man's mouth, I suspect Harvey would sum up everything I've written above thusly...'Jersey Girl. In theaters everywhere, March 19.'"
Like father, like son. Biskind's take on Weinstein is that he turned Miramax into a powerhouse through his genuine love of personal movies and his unmatched talent in marketing them to the hinterlands of America. For him Kevin Smith has always been a fairly easy sell: the comedy is resolutely lowbrow (in the end credits of Mallrats Smith thanks John Hughes and John Landis), and the dialogue so packed with pop-culture arcana that it seems satirical even when it's not as funny as Smith thinks. Both Dogma, a nervy leap into the bizarre outer limits of Catholic mythology, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, an old-
fashioned movie-back-lot romp starring his signature duo, trade heavily in this and gradually wear out their welcomes. Jersey Girl has more laughs than anything Smith has ever done, but his real accomplishment is integrating his warped humor into a genuinely personal story.
I don't know of many people who consider the movie business a family, functional or otherwise, but Smith seems to have fatherhood on the brain these days: his own father died shortly after the completion of Jersey Girl, and his experiences as a new dad heavily inform the movie. Ben Affleck, who's very funny here indeed, stars as Ollie Trinke, a hotshot New York music publicist blissfully in love with his movie-perfect wife (Jennifer Lopez). Pregnant with their first child, she breaks down crying before the MTV Music Awards because she looks so bovine and knows the other women there will be slim and slinky. Affleck, the gallant romantic lead, embraces and comforts her, cooing, "They're just skinny 'cause they're all coked-out whores." Shortly thereafter she dies in childbirth, in a scene that powerfully shifts from familiar delivery-room comedy to frightening confusion, and after losing his flashy job Ollie moves back to Highlands, New Jersey, to raise his infant daughter, joining his crabby widowed father (George Carlin) as a street cleaner for the borough.
When Smith plugs into the fears and dilemmas of having a child, his crude comic panache serves him well. After the story jumps ahead to the child's eighth year, Ollie walks in on little Gertie (Raquel Castro) as she and a neighborhood boy are showing each other their privates; Smith cuts to the living room as Affleck, profiled on one side of the frame, addresses the two children on the couch across from him: "What are your intentions toward my daughter?" he asks the baffled little boy. Later in the film, when an unlikely turn of events finds him trying to bang a sexy grad student (Liv Tyler) while Gertie is at school, the child arrives home unexpectedly and catches the half-clad couple in the shower. Smith cuts to the same shot, with the positions reversed and the child interrogating the two adults. "What are your intentions toward my father?" she asks.
Unfortuately, the family story that grounds the comedy often descends into mawkish cliche. When Ollie, parked outside his wife's delivery room, learns that she has died, Smith slips into television mode for a far shot of him breaking down, the audio blotted out with a syrupy pop tune. In a conflict that's been done to death, Ollie must choose between his daughter and his professional ambition when he's offered a job interview in Manhattan the same afternoon he's supposed to perform with Gertie in a school assembly. Another TV moment ensues as he and the child argue, shout terrible things at each other, and freeze in a shocked moment. Of course Ollie materializes at the last minute to join Gertie onstage, and when they've finished their gory performance of a Sweeney Todd number, there's a "slow clap," an 80s motif that was wickedly parodied in Not Another Teen Movie: the audience reacts with stunned silence, then one person courageously begins clapping and starts a thunderous ovation.
In the last instance Smith obviously knows better, and in interviews he often protects himself by raising the flag of the lowest common denominator. Recalling the production of Mallrats, he tells Biskind, "I didn't grow up watching Eric Rohmer, I grew up watching John Landis. I wanted to make a teen tittie comedy that nobody makes anymore." Sex comedy has been a staple of his films from the beginning, though as he points out in the current Premiere, films like Clerks were closer to his own experience of guys sitting around talking about sex rather than having it. In Jersey Girl this impulse has softened into laughable male fantasy: the beautiful Tyler joins the story as a clerk in the local video store, asking the long-celibate Ollie if she can interview him for a thesis she's writing about men and their relationship to porn. This seems particularly smarmy compared to Chasing Amy, which cast Affleck as a comic-book artist whose love for a charming lesbian forces him to confront his own uncertain sexual identity.
The grating sense of commercial calculation in Jersey Girl consistently undercuts Smith's fine writing, and in this light it's hard to overlook the prolonged sales campaign that brings it to theaters this week--not on March 19, as Smith promised in the punch line of his letter. I can only guess that the date was moved back because The Passion of the Christ was crucifying every new movie in its path, and Smith now operates at a level of the business where topping the box office opening week is a prime strategic objective. A few weeks ago he floated another story preemptively blaming the movie's failure to open at number one on Gigli, the Affleck-Lopez vehicle that became the most derided picture of 2003. "In all honesty, Gigli did kind of wing us and still kind of stings to this day," he was quoted as saying on various movie Web sites. "When I put the movie together it was Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, and Jennifer Lopez and we had a great shot at being the number one movie the weekend we open."
Though Smith is clearly not averse to working the phones when it suits his interests, he establishes Ollie's publicity career as a negative pole that pulls him away from a truer life with his old man, his father's two thick-necked buddies (Mike Starr and Stephen Root), and Gertie, who works them all like Shirley Temple. As a publicist Ollie takes enormous pride in his ability to weave a "web of bullshit," and Smith illustrates this with a few priceless whoppers early in the film ("George Michael is a pimp who is all about the ladies, my friend!"). But after Ollie, stressed out by the demands of fatherhood, loses his cool at a public event and insults both his client and the assembled journalists, his career evaporates. In one of the movie's funniest scenes, he shows up for a job interview after years in exile and discovers that his outburst has become an urban legend; the young players who invited him down (Smith regulars Matt Damon and Jason Lee) idolize him but have no intention of hiring him.
Publicists are hardly known for their candor, but in all fairness they're only doing their clients' bidding, and in my own brief experience as a movie reviewer no studio has been more aggressive in trying to control the press than Miramax. Earlier this year the Chicago press corps were disinvited from a sneak preview of the king-size turkey My Baby's Daddy, a move that prevented any paper from reviewing it until after its opening weekend. When the studio screened The Battle of Shaker Heights, a dud whose genesis had been documented weekly on Affleck and Damon's HBO reality series Project Greenlight, only journalists writing puff pieces were invited. But none of that deters the studio from polling critics for early reactions to its movies--including Jersey Girl.
Smith has a lot riding on this one: with its megastar salaries, it will have to outgross everything he's ever done before just to break even. That's not the sort of situation that encourages a filmmaker to take risks, and from the first scene, in which Gertie's grade school classmates read aloud embarrassing essays about their parents, Jersey Girl has more in common with Art Linklater than with Richard Linklater. When Smith made Clerks he was in a financial situation even more perilous and delivered a movie that took no prisoners--but that was before Harvey Weinstein came into his life. I loved my father too, but there comes a time in everyone's life when you have to tell dad to fuck off.