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'Jersey Girl'

Imagine a Shirley Temple movie written and directed by Lenny Bruce — "Little Miss Marker" or "Wee Willie Winkie" — with key plot points involving pornography and masturbation, and you'll get an idea of what writer-director Kevin Smith has come up with in "Jersey Girl."

Smith would probably be the first to say he's hardly a Lenny Bruce, but with films like "Clerks," "Chasing Amy" and "Dogma," not to mention the more forgettable "Mallrats" and "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," he has made a career out of being iconoclastic, borderline blasphemous and in your face.

But even bad boys grow up and Smith, now a husband and father who recently lost his own father, has decided it is time for something completely different. Sort of. So he's brought his smartly profane sensibility to the most standard sentimental material imaginable, the kind of film that costars a Temple-esque tot and features not one but two romantic carriage rides through Central Park.

It's a sincere albeit doomed attempt to balance irreconcilables that leads to been-there situations like a husband comforting a pregnant wife who feels she's too fat to attend a glamorous party by assuring her that those svelte rivals are "skinny because they're coked-out whores." The lines can be sharp and some moments amuse, but the story line is so moribund that nothing can bring it back to a rich and full life.

Smith's mix-and-match technique is visible from his opening sequence, which features a parade of cute grade-school kids making risqué remarks about their parents' personal lives. Then little Gertie Trinke (Raquel Castro) takes the stage and narrates an extended flashback that returns us to the days when her parents were dating.

Ollie Trinke (Ben Affleck) is a refugee from New Jersey happy to be New York's youngest and most successful music business publicist. The love of his life is children's book editor Gertrude Steiney, played by Jennifer Lopez. Given that the Affleck/Lopez affair that launched a thousand tabloid covers was in full flower when "Jersey Girl" was shooting, it's nice to report that their on-screen chemistry, brief though it is, is pleasing. It's brief because when two people are that crazy about each other in movies like this one, you know one of them has to die, and a look at the poster tells you its not going to be Ollie.

The bulk of "Jersey Girl" takes place when Gertie is 8 and living back in Jersey because her dad has experienced a reversal of fortune so extreme they're crashing with Ollie's crusty dad, Bart (an energetic George Carlin), a street sweeper who doubles as custodian of the wisdom of the ages.

"Jersey Girl's" press material reports that young Castro, here making her feature debut, was a live wire practically from birth, so it's not surprising that her smile and positive spirit make her the film's most engaging performer.

As for Affleck, he is doing the best he can in a part he's called "the role of a lifetime." But he is such a transparent actor despite his stardom that having to experience him in tears is not a sight for the faint of heart. Fortunately for Affleck he's paired up with Liv Tyler, an actress of similarly unprepossessing style. She plays Maya, a video store clerk who busts our hero for renting pornography despite being a family man. How's that for a cute meet?

Despite that frisson of naughtiness and the occasional smile, "Jersey Girl" is overall too bland to hold our interest. The lessons about What's Really Important In Life that Jersey boy Ollie Trinke has to learn are so preordained, the film needs to have a lot more on the ball than it does to succeed.

One of the film's most engaging aspects, for those who care about these things, is its "inside baseball" qualities. Affleck's pal Matt Damon makes a cameo appearance along with Jason Lee, Will Smith has a pleasant uncredited scene, the voice of Miramax head Harvey Weinstein is heard on the phone, and the writer-director's longtime publicity firm, the Angelotti Co., gets almost as much screen time as Lopez.

"Jersey Girl's" closing credits end with a long list of personal thanks from Smith ("Raquel — Kid, you're a star") that have the pleasantly ingenuous quality of high school yearbook greetings. It would be nice to see the writer-director apply his blessedly individual sensibility to something not quite this ordinary.

'Jersey Girl'

MPAA rating: PG-13, for language and sexual content including frank dialogue

Times guidelines: Sexually candid language

Ben Affleck ... Ollie Trinke

Liv Tyler ... Maya

George Carlin ... Bart Trinke

Raquel Castro ... Gertie

Jason Biggs ... Arthur

Jennifer Lopez ... Gertrude Steiney

A View Askew production, released by Miramax Films. Director Kevin Smith. Producer Scott Mosier. Executive producers Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Jonathan Gordon. Screenplay Kevin Smith. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Editors Kevin Smith, Scott Mosier. Costumes Juliet Polcsa. Music James Venable. Production design Robert Holtzman. Art director Elise Viola. Set decorator Diane Lederman. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.

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