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Jersey Girl

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Kevin Smith is listed as writer and director on “Jersey Girl,” but surely it can’t be THE Kevin Smith. Not the un-Hollywood maverick Kevin Smith who gave us the rambling anarchy of “Clerks,” or the subversive parody of “Dogma,” or the dead-on Hollywood mockery of “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.” This must be some OTHER Kevin Smith, a Kevin Smith who graduated from ABC family sitcoms to a feature film about a single dad raising his supernaturally cute daughter while living with his crusty, tell-it-like-it-is father.

Ah, but it is the same guy. And that’s sad. “Jersey Girl” is so by-the-numbers, so depressingly average, that I’m tempted to believe Smith is PARODYING by-the-numbers, depressingly average films. Alas, that is mere wishful thinking on my part, as there is nothing within the film to suggest Smith is anything other than sincere about this piddling story and its piddling characters.

Affleck plays Ollie Trinke, a Manhattan music-industry public relations flak; J-LO plays Gertie, his wife. Fortunately for moviegoers, she dies, but not before delivering a child, also named Gertie.

Ollie’s pretty much a self-important butthole who throws himself into his work to avoid grieving, and he pawns baby Gertie off on his dad (George Carlin), an alcoholic street-sweeper in New Jersey, to care for while he’s shmoozing for a living. Ollie cracks eventually, though, leading to a public meltdown and the loss of his job. Now a broken man, he moves back in with his father on a semi-permanent basis.

Skip ahead seven years. Ollie is working alongside his old man and maintaining a reasonably happy existence, though he still wishes he could get back into the P.R. biz. Gertie (Raquel Castro), now 7 years old and ferociously cute, is the light of his life because she reminds him of dead J-Lo, and she’s perfectly content to stay in the suburbs, away from the big city.

Then Ollie meets a woman, Maya (Liv Tyler), who works at the video store and who is fascinated by the porn-renting habits of a single father. They become friends and maybe more, but Ollie can’t adjust to the idea of being with another woman after the death of his soulmate, even though that was seven years ago.

So there’s that After-School Special topic to deal with, plus another, more outrageous one: Ollie finally gets an interview with a big P.R. firm, but guess what? It’s the same day as Gertie’s school talent show! Following the standard formula to the letter, Ollie finally realizes what’s truly important in his life after he has a pivotal conversation with a stranger. Everything works out nicely, and there are hugs all around.

There is a smattering of funny dialogue; most of the characters speak in that hip, literary style Smith is known for. Unfortunately, what they’re actually SAYING tends toward the banal. Still, there is much glee in hearing Ben Affleck tell J-Lo that the reason the women look so good at the MTV Video Music Awards is that they’re all “coked-out whores,” reassuring her that she, too, can be one if she so chooses.

George Carlin is an acerbically welcome presence, and Affleck generally does his best work in Smith films. Stephen Root and Mike Starr help out as Carlin’s drinking buddies and surrogate uncles to Gertie — and little Raquel Castro, Gertie herself, is so excrementally cute I wanted to pound my head through a brick wall. But in a good way.

I don’t grade on the curve, so “Jersey Girl” isn’t being docked any points simply because it fails to live up to what Kevin Smith is capable of. If anyone else had made it, I would dismiss it as a mildly diverting, occasionally humorous fluff film and forget I ever saw it. But as a fan of Smith’s, I’m concerned that this movie signifies the start of a new, mediocre direction for him.

C+ (1 hr., 43 min.; PG-13, a lot of profanity and crude dialogue, some sexuality.)

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