Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler in Jersey GirlJERSEY GIRL

Theoretically, there's nothing wrong with Kevin Smith momentarily eschewing his predilection for what he terms "dick and fart jokes" in favor of more honest, heartwarming fare, but good God, don't we Smith fans deserve better than Jersey Girl? In previous films, Smith presented us with a woman who screws a dead man, the Almighty in the personage of Alanis Morissette, and a lesbian who switches teams for Ben Affleck, yet I found his latest work the least believable in his oeuvre, a movie so brazenly phony and audience-pandering that I wanted to hide my face.

I have no doubt that Kevin Smith made Jersey Girl in all sincerity - the film doesn't feel the least bit cynical - but sincerity of this sort is a sickly thing; it's a movie for people who found About a Boy too tart and edgy. In the film, Smith casts Affleck as a driven career man forced to raise his bright young daughter (Raquel Castro) alone after the death of his wife (Jennifer Lopez); his thirst for the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, however, threatens to end their idyllic life in New Jersey. In short, it's another of those tiresome Hollywood parables that tell us you can either be a wealthy, successful, big-city hotshot or a good parent, but not both; it's flattering to audiences in a depressingly condescending way. (Hollywood loves reminding us that money can't buy happiness while demanding $10 a pop to see its movies.)

Jersey Girl is a bummer, an uninspiring and unconvincing argument for family values - and who, exactly, is against family values? - but, admittedly, it has a few nice moments. Despite spending too much time sobbing and looking soulful while a soft-rock soundtrack grates on our nerves, Affleck is less obnoxious than he has been of late, and occasionally reminds us of his comic gifts. (He's especially fine in a scene in which he discovers his daughter and a young friend playing I'll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours and he tries his damnedest to be cool about it.) George Carlin, though barely proficient as an actor, has a lovely moment of ruefulness toward the end, Will Smith contributes a smart cameo, and the director stages a gratifyingly bizarre grade-school production of a Sweeney Todd number - now there's the Kevin Smith touch. But such moments are all but lost amidst Jersey Girl's relentless sappiness, and Smith, who has never possessed a sharp directorial eye, appears to have lost his ear as well; his dialogue here is tinny and shockingly unfunny. (The film's PG-13 rating seems to have severely cramped Smith's style.) It's swell to know that Smith has "heart," but that was already apparent in Chasing Amy and Dogma; here, he's merely wearing his heart on his sleeve, and the results border on the embarrassing. With Jersey Girl, Kevin Smith has made a movie for people who don't like Kevin Smith movies, and it's hard to imagine a cinematic sight more dispiriting.


Matthew Lillard in Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters UnleashedSCOOBY DOO 2: MONSTERS UNLEASHED

It's barely a compliment, but Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed is much better than its predecessor, if only because director Raja Gosnell and his collaborators have finally come up with a consistent tone. 2002's Scooby-Doo was, I thought, an unholy mess; the filmmakers didn't seem to know whether to aim for the family audience or the grown-ups who liked the TV show when they were kids, so the movie was a queasy combination of ultra-bright, ultra-loud kiddie fare and obvious, "adult" double entendres involving Shaggy's stoner appeal and Daphne's and Velma's hotness. This time around, though, Gosnell and company are most decidedly catering to their youthful fan base, which seems wise; it takes the pressure of being "smart" off the cast and crew, and this sequel has a giddier spirit and moves along at a more lively pace than the original. Having said that, Scooby-Doo 2 is still mostly crummy, overflowing with lame jokes, unsurprising twists, and the requisite canine flatuence. (Nice to know some filmmakers are picking up Kevin Smith's slack.) It will probably satisfy its intended audience, but with dullards Freddie Prinze Jr. and Sarah Michelle Gellar in the leads, only Matthew Lillard and Linda Cardellini make the proceedings bearable for the rest of us; as Shaggy and Velma, they don't really have anything entertaining to do, but their cartoonish winsomeness and willingness to actually stay in character is, to put it mildly, a relief.


Home on the RangeHOME ON THE RANGE

Are parents better off taking their kids to Disney's latest, and purportedly last, hand-drawn animated feature film, Home on the Range? Definitely, if they consider incessant belching less offensive than Scooby-Doo's farting; otherwise, it's a toss-up. If the film is indeed the swan song for feature-length Disney cartoons, I'm not sure the studio could have given us (all burping aside) a blander outing; the film seems almost designed to make us not miss hand-drawn animation. A musical-comedy set in the wild, wild West, Home on the Range offers the same themes of Respecting Each Other's Differences and Working as a Team that the studio has been foisting on us for decades, and its eclectic cast of voice-over talent - Roseanne, Judi Dench, Jennifer Tilly, Cuba Gooding Jr., Randy Quaid, Steve Buscemi - gives their lines exactly the readings we'd expect. (Although, in a rather disconcerting way, it's amusing to see how much Steve Buscemi's animated equivalent looks like Buscemi.) Alan Menken's songs are dully serviceable - Does anyone remember Disney's last truly inspired musical score? Was it for The Lion King? - and it's all wrapped up in just over 70 minutes. Home on the Range is harmless, innocuous, and instantly forgettable. Thanks for the cartoon memories, Disney; I wish I could say we'll eventually remember this one.


Hayden Christensen and Peter Sarsgaard in Shattered GlassSHATTERED GLASS

Shattered Glass, writer-director Billy Ray's acclaimed exposé of former New Republic journalist Stephen Glass - who, to the periodical's mortification, created 27 "true" stories out of whole cloth - has just been released on DVD and video, and even though it's not a very strong film, it's certainly worth a rental. Hayden Christensen gives an overly mannered performance as Glass, the supporting cast (Chloe Sevigny, Hank Azaria, Steve Zahn, Rosario Dawson) is underused, and you often can't tell if Ray's staging, and his direction of actors, is intentionally unrealistic or merely incompetent. (The former, we eventually learn, though on a first viewing this information arrives too late to matter.) Yet the movie has a great, All the President's Men kind of forward momentum - you ache for Christensen's little schmuck to receive his comeuppance - and Peter Sarsgaard is really remarkable in it. Playing Glass's suspicious editor, Chuck Lane, Sarsgaard gives a deeply felt, yet astonishingly subtle, portrayal of a man who has to, but doesn't want to, do the right thing; I'm not sure how much I want to see Shattered Glass again, but I'll happily admit to having watched Sarsgaard's scenes several times over.

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