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Sweet Smith 

There's going to be some lively conversation taking place as people leave the theater at the end of Jersey Girl. My guess is that of the viewers familiar with Kevin Smith's past work, half will say, "Hmm, what an interesting turn he's taken." The other half will ask, "What the hell happened to Kevin Smith?"

Those past films include Clerks, Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back -- all pretty edgy and filled with over-the-top characters and racy dialogue along with some rather extreme situations. Now we have Jersey Girl, a sweet, funny, charming, and schmaltzy story about finding romance, losing it, and possibly finding it again. Add to that the fact that opposite Ben Affleck as Ollie is co-star Raquel Castro, a cute little 7-year-old, whose character Gertie is precocious and feisty.

So this is kind of an anti-Kevin Smith film. But it's well done.

The whole Jennifer Lopez flap is dealt with early on. She plays Gertie (the mom, not the daughter), the woman whom Ollie falls for. After a bittersweet opening 15 minutes, Ollie is forced to shoulder more of the parenting burden than he had bargained for.

Ollie and Gertie leave New York, head to New Jersey and move in with his dad, Bart (George Carlin, who manages to get a reefer reference in very early), cramping both his house and his style. Ollie never realized that being a father would get in the way of his own life so much. He's inattentive to his daughter, and dependent on his father to take care of her. When Bart has finally had enough, he just stops being a replacement dad, which leads to Ollie -- who has no idea of how to be a dad -- imploding at his job as a P.R. flack in the music business. A funny and startling scene with him in front of a roomful of hungry sharks, er, I mean journalists, sets him up for being fired and blacklisted from the business.

Flash forward to seven years later. Ollie has a job as a city worker, alongside Bart. Gertie is just developing interests in theater (which leads to running gags about Cats and much discussion of Sweeney Todd) and boys. Coincidentally, Ollie, after seven years of abstinence, is about to meet a young woman who catches his attention.

Maya (Liv Tyler) works in a video store but is more interested in writing her thesis on video rental practices. She's immediately fascinated by Ollie, who lets Gertie find what she wants to rent while he quickly peruses the porno titles because, well, he's been horny for a long time. The free-spirited Maya asks Ollie out, strictly to get to know him as a subject for her thesis. Yeah, right.

The rest of the movie examines two questions: What will happen to the new Ollie-Maya relationship? What will happen to Ollie's career?

Affleck has said in recent interviews that he's very proud of the work he did in this film, and he should be. It's a terrific performance. There's a very touching monologue to his infant daughter about how unhappy he is and how special she is, and most of the best scenes involve him and newcomer Raquel Castro, who appear relaxed and natural with each other. There's also some great stuff between Affleck and Carlin, who has worked well with Kevin Smith before, most notably in Dogma as Cardinal Glick. Here, Carlin presents a nice balance of a guy who can be a wisecracker but at the same time offer sage advice.

Affleck and Smith pals Matt Damon and Jason Lee provide a funny cameo, and for those who like a smattering of show music, Affleck, Castro, and Tyler all get to sing briefly. Anyone concerned about the direction of Smith's career need not worry. He's already working on a Fletch prequel. After that, he's slated to direct The Green Hornet.

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