- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2004

NEW YORK - Writer-director Kevin Smith is growing up, and there’s not a thing his legion of pre-pubescent-mentality, Internet-chat-room-lovin’ fans can do about it.

The director responsible for the rabidly juvenile “Clerks,” “Chasing Amy” and “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” is out peddling a warm and fuzzy family comedy. Or at least as warm and fuzzy as Mr. Smith’s independent streak will allow.

“Jersey Girl” is a Frank Capra film for today’s young parents. Public relations whiz Ollie Trinke (Ben Affleck, who seems to come at least partially alive under Mr. Smith’s thumb) is having a baby with his bride, Gertrude. (Jennifer Lopez. Yup, that Jennifer Lopez.) Complications arise during childbirth, and Gertrude dies, leaving Ollie alone with their child (the adorable Raquel Castro).

Ollie can’t mourn, flack for his clients and care for his daughter all at once. Something’s gotta give. What will it be?

“A lot of the fan base has grown up with me,” begins Mr. Smith during a press junket to spread interest in “Jersey Girl” and tactfully debunk any notion this is “Gigli, Part 2.”

His “hard-core base” is another matter.

“I knew the moment I hit the first key … I’m gonna lose ‘em,” he says. “There’s nothing for them in this movie.”

“Jersey Girl” isn’t Merchant-Ivory serious. We’re still talking about innuendo-laced ramblings and paint-by-number heart tugs. But any Mr. Smith film that leaves out Jay and Silent Bob should be considered an emotional departure.

Mr. Smith is modest about his work.

“I’m not deep a thinker in terms of themes in movies,” he says. “I let everyone else figure out the themes, and then I jump on it.”

In person, Mr. Smith, wearing a generously sized Highlands, N.J., athletic jersey, peppers his talk with casual profanity, assuming a comfort level between himself and his interviewers. It’s similar to the repartee he concocts for the screen.

“Jersey Girl” may run against type for Mr. Smith’s film persona, but not for the simple Jersey boy.

“This is the easier material for me to write,” he explains. “At heart, I’m a melodramatic sap. … I’m not a stoner. The other stuff is more observational. This stuff comes right from the heart.”

Mr. Affleck’s performance came from the same organ. The actor was mid-Bennifer during the film’s shoot, and the fallout continues. Scenes got snipped, including one with Ollie and Gertrude on their wedding day. Mr. Smith insists the cuts were more organic than damage control — except for the aforementioned nuptials.

“Everybody wants me to say it was all the Jennifer stuff [that I cut], but it really wasn’t,” Mr. Smith says, smoking an endless chain of cigarettes.

What Mr. Smith can’t cut out is the career crisis Mr. Affleck is currently enduring. To a certain degree, the actor has been the through line in Mr. Smith’s career. After establishing his comedy cred with 1994’s “Clerks,” the director turned to Mr. Affleck for 1995’s “Mallrats” and, more importantly, as the lead in 1997’s “Chasing Amy.”

For the actor, it took Mr. Smith’s not-so-gentle nudging to help Miramax greenlight “Good Will Hunting” and subsequently jump-start his career.

“He’s the first person to say I could play a lead,” says Mr. Affleck, explaining that before “Amy,” he was typecast in hoodlum roles. “Jersey Girl,” he says, is Mr. Smith’s most personal film since “Amy.”

“They were both about really personal stuff to Kevin, what he was going though at the time,” Mr. Affleck says. “When we were in our early 20s, it was the mysteries of relationships and sex. … What he’s now grappling with is becoming a man.”

Mr. Smith likens the sacrifices “Jersey Girl’s” Ollie Trinke must consider to those made by his own father, who died last year. “He worked every night from 11 o’clock at night to 7 o’clock in the morning at the post office canceling stamps,” the director says of his father, who saw a rough cut of “Jersey Girl” before he died. “Talk about soul-killing work. He did it for those moments when he didn’t have to work, when he could take us on vacation.”

Still, the director’s hard-core fans need not be discouraged by all this talk about growing up. Mr. Smith, who runs a comic-book shop in his native New Jersey, remains an overgrown child at heart.

His next project? He’ll write and direct a big-screen adaptation of “Green Hornet.”

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