But Smith, now a husband and father who just buried his own dad a year ago, has confused growing up with giving in. He's always claimed to be a sellout, the defense mechanism of an independent filmmaker who came of age well above ground, but Jersey Girl feels like the ultimate act of surrender, a product as generic as white-label beer. Everything about the movie, from its premise of a single father raising a kid all alone to its school-musical finale, tastes like leftovers.
The movie opens a decade ago, with Manhattan music-biz publicist Ollie Trinke (Ben Affleck) romancing a woman named Gertrude (Jennifer Lopez, who has been all but eradicated from the movie and its advertising). Lopez is killed off early in the movie, during a childbirth scene that has all the emotional impact of an actor sighing offscreen.
Ollie, a powerful and ostensibly rich man, can't even change a diaper or hire a nanny. He leaves baby Gertie with his father (George Carlin), who loves the company but loathes the responsibility. When he can take it no more, the senior Trinke forces Ollie to take the kid -- who, of course, ruins a big event and gets daddy fired, forcing baby and father to move back to Jersey. We're left gasping as the clichés take up all the air in the room.
Seven years later, Ollie is driving a garbage truck and still living with his father and Gertie, now played by Raquel Castro, a dead ringer for Lopez plucked from the Precious Movie Kid bin. Ollie wants his old life back -- he takes an interview with Matt Damon and Jason Lee in one terrific scene -- but he's torn between the city and Liv Tyler's Maya, who works in a video store that carries only Miramax titles, one of Smith's few in-joke indulgences.
Jersey Girl is the first Smith movie to look professional -- it was shot by one-time Robert Altman collaborator Vilmos Zsigmond, who convinced Smith it's actually OK to move the camera -- but that's often its problem; it's too polished. Even the movies Smith made solely for fetishists had a ramshackle appeal in their sloppiness, their energy and their sneering determination to stay away from cheap, manipulative sentimentality. But everyone in the syrupy Jersey Girl looks on the verge of tearing up and breaking down; Affleck delivers a tear-stained monologue about life and death and second chances like a man who's never cried in his life. Smith used to make movies to make fun of movies like Jersey Girl. Now he's just another guy working the assembly line.