“If I can write 4000+ words on Kevin Smith’s Jersey Girl, I’m pretty sure I can write a dissertation.” Here’s Stevi Costa with the promised 4000+ words, in which she confronts Kevin Smith on his white, heteronormative male privilege, then puts on her musical theatre nerd hat for an analysis of Sweeney Todd.
I am not entirely sure why I signed up to re-view Kevin Smith’s 2004 flop Jersey Girl. I didn’t especially like it in 2004, but I certainly didn’t hate it. I recall that the film was released a year after the Affleck-J.Lo disaster known as Gigli (which I saw in theatres, knowing full well that it would be awful, and received the pleasant surprise of being the only person in the movie theatre . . . aside from the couple in the back row having sex). And because Gigli was such a disaster, the film’s distributors worked very hard to remind viewers that Jersey Girlwouldn’t be as bad as Gigli because J.Lo dies within the first five minutes of the film, saving us all from the horror of watching her try to be an actress. (She’s a lovely person, a good dancer, and a pretty okay singer, but a terrible, terrible actress.) And from the horror of watching an onscreen version of a Hollywood romance that, the very same year, ended with a very public breakup.
But as I sat down to re-watch Jersey Girl, ten years removed from the public romance of Bennifer and the Gigli disaster, I can tell you with certainty that those elements aren’t what make Jersey Girl a bad film. It’s Kevin Smith’s refusal to be an adult, and a whole shitload of white, heteronormative male privilege that renders a potentially sweet story about a single dad into something pretty unlikeable.
Affleck, sporting what Sweeney Todd’s Beadle would call “a dearly pomaded head,” plays the unfortunately named Ollie Trinke, a music industry PR douchebag of the highest caliber who is in love with the city that never sleeps, until he meets J.Lo’s Gertie, who we never really learn anything about other than that she is a book editor and can sass Ollie’s working class Jersey dad (played with his trademark highbrow/lowbrow crass intellect by the late George Carlin). Gertie and Ollie have a very fast-paced romance in their fast-paced city, and are elated to fulfill the milestones of middle-classness: retaining their high-powered jobs, getting engaged, getting married (which we don’t see in the montage), getting pregnant. Until, as the PR powerhouses behind this film told all of us in 2004 before we even bought tickets, Gertie dies in childbirth, leaving behind her newborn daughter and her bereft husband . . . who chooses to honor his wife’s memory by naming their little girl Gertie.
Ollie works through his grief quite literally, shoving his infant daughter off onto anyone at the office with free hands, and when forced to care for her, is utterly unable to, fumbling with diapers, wiping improperly (an onlooker informs him this will give the little girl “crotch rot” . . . thanks, Kevin Smith), and covering himself with baby powder. All of the stress of having to care for a small human by himself is too much for him, and he then loses his treasured PR job by publicly insulting music journalists and his clients during a press conference while he holds his baby in his hands. This scene is supposed to communicate that BEING A SINGLE PARENT IS HARD and that IT ISN’T EASY TO HAVE IT ALL when you’re raising a child, but it actually just informs me that Ollie is an asshole and a child himself. It’s very difficult to like a man who sees his own progeny as burdensome, and difficult to like a film that supposes Gertie is the reason Ollie loses his cool at the press conference. It’s not; it’s that he’s a privileged douchebag.
During his five minutes of screentime with J.Lo, Ollie also treats his pregnant wife as a liability, a thing that will cause him to be late to an important work function. The film is really unkind to pregnant women here, reinforcing the stereotypical portrayal as hormonal fluctuations as things that need to be managed, regulated, and never seen in public. It does so through J.Lo’s exaggerated histrionics (so she is complicit in this representation), and Affleck’s attempts to resolve the situation for his own benefit, rather than her needs. Later, Ollie shows up late to Lamaze class and Gertie admonishes him for it. He apologizes half-heartedly. I shouldn’t be surprised that the film chooses to endorse Ollie’s point of view; he is, after all, the protagonist. However, the character’s treatment of his wife is a problem for the film. I neither respect Ollie’s career ambitions enough to endorse his priorities, nor do I find his casual misogyny endearing in the slightest. In most scenes, I just wanted to yell at the dude, “CHECK. YO. PRIVILEGE.”
Apparently left with nothing after his PR meltdown, Ollie moves back to Jersey with his dad, who, in no uncertain terms, tells him that he needs to learn to be a father. Ollie’s upset about losing his job and being in New Jersey, but here he also immediately has a change of heart because here he’s forced to be with his child. But even his “heartfelt” monologue to his daughter in her crib strikes me as douchey. As he beweeps his outcast state, he tells little Gertie that she’s “a little piece of Mommy, and that’s all Daddy has left.” On the surface, that’s very sweet, but it also tells Gertie that she doesn’t matter all that much to him. For Ollie, his daughter’s only value is being a reminder of her mother. This doesn’t acknowledge, of course, that Gertie is also his child, but merely that she is meant to replicate and replace her mother in his life. What the fuck, dude? Your daughter is not your wife. This is a really creepy and off-putting way to frame your “change of heart.
The film flashes forward seven years, and we now see construction worker Ollie greeting little Gertie at school. He definitely seems a changed man: He has traded in his suits and pomade for messy hair and jeans. He doesn’t take the train; he drives a street sweeper. He’s learned to love her and value her. He is playful with her. Ollie and Gertie still live with Grandpa in New Jersey, and their day-to-day lives consist of work, school, and trips to the video store. (Did you forget this was a Kevin Smith film?) On one such trip to the video store, Ollie reaches into the porn section to grab a title without his daughter looking and inadvertently rents “Bi-Bi Guys,” which doe-eyed grad student-cum-video store clerk Liv Tyler teases him about, and about which he has a signature Kevin Smith moment of gay panic. Video store clerk Maya wants to ask him about his porn-renting preferences for her thesis, the brilliantly titled, “A Bird in the Hand: The Family Man and the Pornographic Fixation.” He agrees, but asks her to stop when Gertie approaches the counter with her rental selection. Maya makes an offhand remark about Ollie’s wife and Gertie matter-of-factly offers that her mother is dead. Maya feels so badly about this that she not only apologizes and offers consolation, but later SHOWS UP AT THEIR HOME TO APOLOGIZE FURTHER. Not only is this behavior bizarre, creepy, and way more thought than any video store employee would ever put into any interaction with a customer (and I know because I worked at video stores for several years), but it also is the surest sign that Maya is just a plot device. The line about the thesis makes us think she’s smart, but her character only expresses itself at the surface level. We learn nothing about her interests (other than sex), her thoughts or feelings, or her likes/dislikes. She has 80% more screen time than J.Lo and by the end of the film, we know exactly the same amount about her. Her dialogue with Ollie, in general, functions to inform him of what he’s thinking or feeling, because he’s obviously too much of a totally hetero dudebro to be self-reflexive about his situation. If you’re keeping track, we now have two female characters we know nothing about, and a little girl whose father seems to confuse her with a dead woman.
There are some hijinks with Maya and Ollie maybe falling in love, or maybe not, in which little Gertie gets to totally turn things around on her father in one of the few scenes in the film that I actually do find charming. In a prior scene, Gertie is playing with a neighbor boy and they are discussing what their genitals look like. After the little boy (presumably) shows Gertie his penis, Ollie walks in on his daughter lifting her skirt. I am not a parent, and I realize that for many parents the idea of thinking about your children as sexual beings is rough stuff, but at 6-going-on-7, there’s really nothing sexual about this exchange at all. The kids are merely differentiating their bodies, figuring out, by comparison, why one thing is one thing and another thing is another. But Ollie does what I assume most parents would do: He sits the children down and has a “birds and the bees” type of chat with them. Only Ollie frames this chat not about bodies being different, but that “only married boys and girls show their bodies to each other.” He tells the neighbor boy to go home and come back with a ring. I find the initial confusion of curiosity for sex to be irksome, but understandable, and the framing of sex that-which-belongs-in-heteronormative marriage to be problematic. This is a film that has no fully realized female characters, equates sex with heterosexuality and then both of those things with marriage, expresses gay panic at the thought of bisexuality, and yet is also about a dude who has no idea what to do with the product of heterosexual marriage. I ask again: What the fuck? Gertie does get to offer her father some form of comeuppance, though, and I like this scene very much. When little Gertie catches her father messing around with Maya in the shower (which is where he chooses to hide with her after Gertie interrupts Maya’s dispensation of sex therapy to Ollie, who hasn’t fucked anyone since his wife died), Gertie sits the two adults down and replicates her father’s birds and the bees talk. “What are you intentions with my father?” she asks, which is just darling coming out of a little girl’s mouth. Still, even though I’m charmed by this, I can’t help thinking that poor Gertie is in for a pretty fucked up understanding of her own femininity and sexuality in the long run.
The film’s narrative thrust positions Ollie one again at a choice between career and family when he accidentally schedules a job interview that could get him off the street sweeper and back on Mad Avenue on the same day as Gertie’s school pageant, in which all the children in her class sing a Broadway song with their parents. Every little girl in Gertie’s class is obsessed with Cats, and Gertie is too, but her father DUDEBRO TO THE CORE, doesn’t like musicals and won’t take her to see one. George Carlin naturally talks some sense into his son, as he does to everyone, and Ollie takes Gertie on a trip to Manhattan to see a Broadway show. She can’t see Cats, as it has already closed, so instead the little girl picks out Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and the Act II opener “God, That’s Good” is what the Trinke family has chosen to sing in the school pageant, with Gertie as Mrs. Lovett and her father as Sweeney.
I’ll interject here to say that my father, in spite of being a baby boomer, a notorious flirt, and a career naval officer, is an awesome guy and very much not a dudebro. My father grew up in Brooklyn, and he went to the theatre all the time as a child. Last night, my dad called me at 10:30 after he got home from a musical revue to tell me about all the songs they sang and the dance numbers that were performed. He is still excited about theatre even now, and in his late-in-life bachelorhood likes to go to a piano bar in Oakland once a week and hang out ‘til midnight singing showtunes. (Sidebar: this sounds amazing and I can’t wait to go to this bar with my dad the next time I’m home.) This is the kind of guy my dad is, and so naturally, he took me to the theatre as a child. The first musical my dad took me to see wasMan of La Mancha, and it remains a favorite to this day. We saw it at the Orpheum in San Francisco with Raul Julia as Quixote and Sheena Easton as Aldonza. It was very 1990, and it was incredible. We do baseball and theatre in my house, and for us those things are not incompatible or coded with a particular gender ideology. Therefore, I’m always a little suspicious whenever I meet a man who is quick to say he dislikes musicals or theatre in general because it codes those things as unmasculine in ways that often seem coded with gay panic and misogyny. (Moral of the story: disliking something that I like is fine by me, but I expect you to be able to explain why you don’t like it.)
So I bristle at Ollie’s general dislike of “singing plays” (as he calls them) because it seems colored with this particular thing . . . and because dude works in the music industry! Neither Ollie nor Kevin Smith can see, apparently, that a concept album and a musical are cut from the same cloth. But the scenes in which the whole family, and a couple construction worker buddies, practice “God, That’s Good” in the living room are pretty adorable. And the final performance they give at the show is quite good, too, especially because Ollie once again has a change of heart and makes it back to New Jersey JUST IN TIME to share the stage with his daughter for her big moment.
Of course, Ollie does have to be an asshole some more before he can have that change of heart and race back to New Jersey to be in a play with his daughter. During a living room rehearsal of the scene, Ollie gets the news that he’s getting a job interview that might get him back in the PR game, and when he very excitedly declares that he’s going to get the job and move back to the city, and get a “West Side address,” and a good school for Gertie (who already goes to a very nice private school, by the way), Gertie declares that she doesn’t want to live in Manhattan and instead wants to stay in New Jersey with grandpa and his friends and Maya and the video store and her school and her friends because, hey, she’s a person and has a life and thoughts and feelings, which her father naturally doesn’t notice or consider. The two then have an explosive fight where Gertie tells her father he’s mean and that she hates him and wishes he died, “not Mommy,” and he then says, and I quote, “I hate you right back you little shit! You and your mom took my life away from me. I just want it back!” We’re not meant to like Ollie in this moment, and indeed we don’t. Gertie is right to run away from her father, to criticize him for acting like an entitled child, for not considering anyone but himself. And because this moment demonstrates that he hasn’t actually changed at all. He continues to frame his daughter as a determent to his own life, and more troubling, that the values of heterosexual marriage he so highly upholds are the thing that took his life away. Wow, dude. Just wow.
Will Smith, the very client Ollie had trashed at the beginning of the film, ends up being the person who helps him change his mind about getting back into PR as they have a single-serving chat in the waiting room for Ollie’s big job interview, and I’m glad that Will Smith is the person who can convince our manchild protagonist that he does want to be a part of a family, and that his brief heterosexual marriage was a good thing, and that the product of that marriage is an even better thing. It’s nice to see Smith’s family held up as a paragon, which is not typically how black families are represented. (Even if that does also put Smith in a kind of reimagined “magical Negro” trope.) And because of Will Smith, Ollie rushes back to Jersey to be selfless for once and do a singing play with his daughter because it makes her happy. This is genuinely sweet, and even though he doesn’t like signing plays, I’ve got to give Ollie credit for actually having a great time acting with his daughter. If you’re going to act like a child while you’re an adult, this is clearly the best way to do it: breaking up the monotony of families singing “Memory” from Cats with some nice Victorian-era cannibalism.
What I’ve learned in this rewatch is that I don’t really like Jersey Girl very much, particularly because I think the film is homophobic and misogynistic and Affleck’s character is a really bad person to anchor a film around. He’s not even the deeply flawed anti-heroes we’ve seen so much lately that are compelling and reflexive, but just a movie-star handsome white guy who has never questioned his own privilege and is dealing with that in messy ways that seem to reinforce privilege rather than undoing it. He’s nothing at all like the anti-hero he plays in his daughter’s school production, Sweeney Todd.
What I really learned in rewatching Jersey Girl is that Sweeney Todd is an infinitely more interesting story about a man who loses everything. Sweeney actually does lose everything: framed for a crime he did not commit and shipped off to “bloody Australia or wherever” all so someone else could continue to rape his wife and kidnap his child. Unlike Ollie Trinke, he is not simply inconvenienced from the life he thinks he deserves to have. Sweeney longs for the life he had because his life was both his family and his trade. And Sweeney, though hell-bent on revenge and shacking up with his troubled co-conspirator, is driven in his quest by his love for his daughter. Indeed, when Ollie and Gertie go to the theatre and see Sweeney, the scene they’re watching is Sweeney’s lovely reprise of “Johanna,” in which he slits the throats of customers while lamenting his lost daughter and imagining what she’d look like as an adult:
“And if you’re beautiful what then
With yellow hair, like wheat
I think we shall not meet again,
My little dove, my sweet,
You’re gone and yet you’re mine
I’m fine, Johanna
Ollie is shocked by the throat-slitting, of course, but I imagine equally shocked by the vision of a man with that much love in his heart for another human being. I love this reprise of “Johanna” because it parallels Sweeney’s longing to see the woman his daughter has grown into, who he hopes will be as beautiful as her mother, Lucy, with the young sailor Anthony, who has just met Johanna and fallen in love with her. Where I placed the ellipsis in the above quote is where Anthony belts out, “I’ll steal you, Johanna,” in a sweet, crystal clear tenor. The scene is so poignant and sad because we know that even if Sweeney finds Johanna again, his family will never be whole, as a suitor will be waiting to take her away from him, although Johanna’s desire to be “married on Sunday” is her own choice as an adult woman who can create her own family. Still, here Sweeney is resolved to his sadness. “I’m fine, Johanna,” he sings. Don’t worry about me. “I’m fine.”
Ultimately, Sweeney does give up his life for Johanna, and she and her young sailor are among the few characters that survive the play’s bloody conclusion. The other survivor is the young boy, Toby, who works for Todd’s partner-in-crime, Mrs. Lovett. Together, the three of them make up a kind of alternative family unit that Sweeney is reluctantly a part of; while Mrs. Lovett treats Toby as a son (and he treats her as a mother, which is why he tries to protect her from Sweeney in Act II’s haunting lullaby, “Not While I’m Around”), but Todd doesn’t treat them as wife and child because they aren’t his. He willingly claims Lucy and Johanna, but not the post-widowing/post-Botany Bay erstwhile family unit of the pie shop. Both Sweeney and Ollie adhere to legal means of making family units, here, but in doing so, Sweeney Todd is infinitely more likeable than Ollie Trinke . . . and he’s a murderer.
I will close, then, with the following observation about the relationship between Jersey Girland Sweeney Todd: where both narratives hinge on a particular definition of family and marriage and what those things look like, nobody seems to question how fucking weird it is that Ollie Trinke essentially plays his daughter’s lover in their school-play performance ofSweeney Todd. Sweeney may not be into marrying Mrs. Lovett (notice his one-word replies to Lovett’s requests in “By the Sea”), but they do seem to be having a sexual relationship (as she also implies in “By the Sea”). This brings me back to the problematic framing Ollie does in his first “change of heart” speech where he suggests that baby Gertie is “a little piece of Mommy” and that’s all he has left. By playing Mrs. Lovett to her father’s Todd in a school play, Gertie fulfills this promise, being both daughter and pseudo-wife/lover all at once. If I were into psychoanalysis, I’d have a lot to say here about the Freudian nature of this construction, but I’ll just leave it with this thought: It’s a problem to think of your child as a replacement for your spouse, especially if your child and spouse are female, because this furthers antiquated notions of heteronormative biological destiny.
To her credit, though, the young actress is a pretty spunky Mrs. Lovett and it makes me really want to see a middle school production of Sweeney Todd.
The word “whore” is used in a pejorative way in a lot of this film. While I do really like the sonic qualities of the word (that nice round O in the middle is most pleasing), I don’t really say this word often anymore because I quite like sex workers and don’t want to participate in language that is demeaning to women, especially women who choose to be sex workers. The use of it in this film is really off-putting and furthers the subtle (but not unharmful) misogyny.
Ollie Trinke? Gertie Trinke? Seriously, Kevin Smith? Those are not names. You are a child. Grow up.
One line I actually laughed at: “Oh, that’s cute. At 8 o’clock you both get a bottle.”
George Carlin is smarter and more human than absolutely everyone else involved in this film. I miss him.
I do find it hard to believe that, in 1994, when the economy was good, a man with Ollie’s PR skillset couldn’t easily get another PR-type job in a non-entertainment industry. The fact that he would so easily become a part of his working-class roots and join his dad on a union construction team is . . . pretty unfathomable.
That said, I like messy-haired construction worked Ben Affleck much better than pomade-and-suits Ben Affleck.
Liv Tyler actually is Eowyn, like, for real, right?
Jason Biggs has a supporting role in this film and he was really skinny in 2004.
J.Lo’s hair is really awful in this film, and it’s not even 1994 awful. It’s some other kind of awful entirely.
I want S. Epatha Merkenson to be my OB/GYN.
Many of you know that I actually hate children singing, and this is yet another reason I love the Sweeney Todd scene in this film: it overcomes the fact that it has a child singing.
This film makes me want to rewatch a lot of Kevin Smith classics and see if I can tolerate them. I really used to dig Kevin Smith’s work. His humor is childish, and I was a child in the 1990s and a teenager in the early 2000s. In retrospect, I know his films are full of unquestioned misogyny, gay panic as a punchline, etc. And I am not sure that those things stand the test of time. Smith’s films speak to a moment in time, but, like Smith and his manchild “heroes,” they don’t grow up or grow old, I suspect, and that doesn’t sit well in 2014 when we’re actively questioning this kind of representation.