Low-Key, Low-Carb Jersey Girl

Wisely, understandably and advisedly cautious after the disastrous Gigli , Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck tiptoe gingerly back to the screen in a low-key, low-carb family comedy called Jersey Girl . She dies in childbirth and exits in the first 12 minutes, leaving Mr. Affleck to carry on solo and redeem his career all by himself. Probably just as well. Her dated, ridiculous and totally unbecoming permed and spit-curled wig wouldn’thave made it through a second reel.

Jersey Girl is a mess, but forced to carry the rest of this too-saccharine but sometimes amusing film based on the personal experiences of scruffy, offbeat director Kevin Smith, Mr. Affleck has his moments. Mr.Smith directed such low-budget flicks as the innovative Chasing Amy , the dismal Mallrats and the sophomoricr eligious sacrilege Dogma.. Best pals Smith,Affleck and Matt Damon are soul mates who care more about pooling their talents and partying hearty at the same time than they do about the value of the kinds of flicks they create, which often give independent filmmaking a deservedly bad reputation. Their movies are like secret club meetings that only a mere handful of public filmgoers ever bother to see, most of whom end up convinced that they should have stayed home watching the exploits of Donald Trump and his fried hair that looks like a peroxided floating island.

Having said all that, I confess I find Mr. Affleck giving his most appealing performance in years in Jersey Girl , a movie superior to the ill-fated Gigli in so many ways that its sweetness and coherence seem almost refreshingly old-fashioned. God knows, it is light-years better and less nauseating than such current pretentious catastrophes as the shallow, superficial Dogville by Danish wacko Lars Von Trier, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind , a phony, spurious sham with Jim Carrey written by the counterfeit writer Charlie Kaufman, with a title as pseudo-treacherous as the movie itself. So despite serious misgivings about Jersey Girl , I found it more tolerable than either of those horrors, or any of the serial-killer junk on the market with Ashley Judd and Angelina Jolie. You don’t believe the premise of Jersey Girl for a minute, and there is very little about it that I would define as realistic, but considering what it’s up against in the current market, I found it bearable. That’s about as praiseworthy as I get these troubling days at the cinema.

There’s something incredibly wrong with this movie which I will get to momentarily, but it has nothing to do with Ben Affleck. He plays a cynical, overworked Jersey kid named Ollie Trinke (they must get these names from the oblivion factory where Renée Zellweger and Zeljko Ivanek hold onto theirs) who becomes a New York spin doctor, aggressively rising to the top ranks of music-industry P.R. because of his good looks and innovative ideas for such trash dispensers as MTV and Rolling Stone . Mr. Affleck is an Ollie about as much as Pee-wee Herman is a Punch, Crunch or Butch. But I digress. His wife, Gertrude (J. Lo convincing as a woman named Gertrude?-yeah, and here’s a Rolex for $39.95), dies in labor, leaving Ollie so grief-stricken that he starts yelling at his nerdy assistant (Jason Biggs) and dumping his unwanted baby daughter on the hick-town doorstep of his father (George Carlin), a garbage collector in Jersey. Torn between the patriarchal responsibility for his kid, which he shirks daily, and the pressures of his glamorous, sexy job in Manhattan, which are driving him to overkill and rage, Ollie follows in the footsteps of Diane Keaton in Baby Boom and drags the infant to work. At a press conference for Will Smith, the big client is so late that Ollie changes the baby’s diapers in the hotel kitchen, drives his staff away holding their noses, insults the music press and Will Smith, and ends up meeting the qualifications for one of those forlorn personals in The Village Voice : “Broke and desperate in Jersey.”

Seven years pass. Trading Giorgio Armani for Banana Republic, the terror of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame now works for the Jersey sanitation department, sweeping streets, plowing snow and carting the garbage to the town dump. His little girl is now 7 going on 45, and her favorite musical is Sweeney Todd . Ollie hasn’t had sex in the seven years since his wife died, which horrifies the pretty but obnoxious clerk at the video store (Liv Tyler) into offering to help him “get back on that horse.” The movie relies on lame sight gags like when the child comes home unexpectedly from school and catches Dad and his unconsummated mercy fuck hiding in the shower. It’s a dead-end life. “How nice,” you say when Dad finally gets a chance to trade this numbing sit-com for one more crack at the Manhattan power game, but this movie takes an absurd detour in the direction of male soap opera instead, as Ollie sacrifices his own future on Madison Avenue to “play in the dirt” with his kid. Dad is forced to choose between sushi, doormen, riding in taxis, opening nights on Broadway, dating women in Manolo Blahnik shoes and an apartment on the Upper West Side-and driving a garbage truck and living in a gruesome house in Jersey with a religious statue in the front yard. Only in the movies is the issue ever presented that you can’t do it all at the same time. What Ollie from Jersey should have done to keep the audience from moaning through the final 10 minutes of this make-believe dilemma, replete with the awesome sight of Ben Affleck performing the Demon Barber of Fleet Street on an elementary-school stage, was pop a Ritalin, drag the 7-year-old brat to an aerie above Central Park West, be a Zen beaver and give her time to build her own dam. Considering the palpable silliness of the role, and his woeful miscasting in it, Mr. Affleck plays this saphead with more charm than he has ever exhibited before. Liv Tyler still can’t act, but she’s comely even in Reeboks. The once ascerbic and outrageous George Carlin seems toothless and subdued as the drunken grandfather. And Kevin Smith loses his edge altogether in his first attempt to make a family movie on a Hollywood budget. Aside from the cockeyed logic that distances it from 21st-century reality, Jersey Girl is pretty screwed up about its chronology, too. J. Lo dies in 1996, and seven years later, in 2003, Ollie takes their kid to Manhattan to see Sweeney Todd , a 1979 Broadway musical that had already been closed for nearly two decades. Ah, the magic of the movies-where old shows run forever, and Ben Affleck movies do not head directly for Blockbuster

Maude, Maude World

When a young slip of a girl decides to devote her growth hormones to keeping cabaret songs alive, it’s doubtful if she knows the definition of the word “hopeless.” But Maude Maggart is lighting up Danny’s Skylight Room on West 46th Street every Monday night through May 3 with undaunted brio. Button-nosed and flat-chested as a choirboy, she’s a slip of a rosebud who looks and sounds nothing like her name. What kind of parents would saddle a child with a name like Maude? Show-business, you know. She loves show tunes, and obviously comes by it naturally. Her grandmother was in vaudeville, her father is character actor Brandon Maggart, her mother appeared in Liza Minnelli’s first Broadway musical, Flora, the Red Menace , and her sister is the grating pop singer Fiona Apple. (Well, I guess “Maude” isn’t so bad; you could be called “Fiona”.) Anyway, although “Maude Maggart” conjures images of unspeakable things that show up when you’ve left the bacon out in the sun too long, the young lady herself is as daisy-fresh as the 16th-century milkmaids frolicking by the mill stream in the old English prints at Sotheby’s. She’s a protégée of Andrea Marcovicci, who has been instrumental in staging her movements and securing her jobs. It helps. Fortunately, Ms. Maggart sings with a maturity and a sureness of tone and timbre that far surpasses those of her mentor. As soon as she develops a personality and a focus of her own, she might even find a future.

Meanwhile, she calls her act at Danny’s “Shaking the Blues Away.” The room has been festooned with the tiny mushroom lamps once popular in 1920′s speakeasies, and the songs are all from the same period-standards like “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” by Irving Berlin and “Button Up Your Overcoat” by DeSylva, Brown and Henderson, with a few obscure gems like “The Lost Liberty Blues” by Cole Porter and silly, ribald ditties like “How Could Red Riding Hood?”, which questions the virtue of what the first famous wolf in drag really did with little you-know-who. This is the good news.

Now for the bad news: About 50 percent of this material is cloying, dated beyond salvage and regrettably dispensable. Ms. Maggart sings with the clear bell tones of a diva and the courage of an ingenue, but what she’s singing isn’t always worth the effort. Ms. Maggart is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a torch singer, so Jerome Kern’s heartbreaking “Why Was I Born?” is as curious as it is ill-advised. Personally, I have already heard Polly Bergen sing Helen Morgan songs to perfection, and I never want to hear Ruth Etting songs again unless they are sung by Doris Day. When she is not singing them, Ms. Maggart is very busy talking about them. Like Andrea Marcovicci, who is famous for weaving too much self-indulgent narrative into her shows, there is entirely too much intrusive talk, talk, talk, and some of it is downright infuriating. The information she dispenses about the restrictive social fabric of the 20′s and the racial intolerance that drove Josephine Baker to Paris is not well researched or coherently organized enough to hold attention. Too many songs and anecdotes about Helen Kane, the voice of Betty Boop, and dowager Elizabeth Welch, remembered now only by elitists, fail to make a point. Worse still, when you stand before a jaded audience in a New York cabaret and tell them who Mabel Mercer was, you are preaching to the choir. The endless banter often sounds alarmingly like it was written by Ms. Marcovicci, who has demonstrated on more than one occasion how much she needs an editor herself. But if the more seasoned performer’s admirable generosity and nurturing influence is so evident, why didn’t she also persuade this babe in swaddling clothes that she is too young and inexperienced to make anything cogent or meaningful out of “Love for Sale”? Maude Maggart makes me think of cabbage roses and scented sachet. Singing a prostitute’s lament is a sad example of what I call youth uninformed. I hope her future is bright in a cabaret world that is cruelly fickle, but for now, all that musical curiosity with no life experience to enhance it makes you start thinking about milkshake hangovers.