Ben & Ben

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The difference? The other men — not to mention such foreigners as Russell Crowe, Colin Farrell and Jude Law — radiate the musk and danger we associate with movie stars, while our guy exudes the domestic familiarity of the modern TV star. (A Ben Affleck sitcom, anyone?) And the others have reps as serious actors. Among these contenders, Affleck is a lightweight. Hand him a big emotional scene — he gets a couple in "Jersey Girl" — and he’ll produce tears on cue, but they’re Shirley Temple tears: the miming of a precocious child actor (which Affleck was). He’s less at ease with explosive feelings than with small gestures. His specialty is the upward glance of exasperation, which works best when he’s playing a work-obsessed cad in need of comeuppance and redemption, as he was in “Changing Lanes” and is in “Jersey Girl.”

Then again, the other guys can’t play Ben Affleck — which Affleck does, on his TV guest spots, brilliantly. He banters with Leno, flatters King’s itch for earnestness, takes all the “Gigli” jokes in stride on “SNL.” He has made his own “Gigli” jokes: that the movie is “the ‘Ishtar’ of our generation.” This blithe masochism is career-smart, of course (as Hugh Grant proved in 1995 when he went on his atonement tour after being arrested with a prostitute), but it also suggests a species of heroic ordinariness Affleck rarely shows in his movie roles. He may be squirming on the inside, but in public he’s Ben Affable.


Affable. That’s the best and worst to be said for “Jersey Girl.” Affleck plays Ollie Trinke, a jerkaholic music publicist who bad-mouths his way out of a job and takes refuge in the Highlands, N.J., home of his earth-salt father (George Carlin) while trying to decide whether a showbiz career is more important than being a good daddy — a plot conundrum whose resolution no eight-year-old will have trouble predicting. Once Lopez, in a small, plangent role, is disposed of, he makes nice with cute moppet Raquel Castro, who plays his daughter Gertie, and who bears an eerie resemblance to a grammar-school J.Lo.

From “Clerks” to “Dogma,” Smith developed a comedy sense that spiked his essential moral earnestness with jovial blasphemy. Here he tries to shift gears and make a populist-doctrinaire comedy, where a tough guy is ruthlessly softened up for the romantic and domestic kill. It’s a nicer version of “Changing Lanes,” and with even more people telling him off: his father, his colleagues at work, most cuttingly his daughter. (“I hate you — I wish you had died instead of mommy.”) Affleck plays the villain and the hero in what is, at heart, a soft-centered romantic comedy.

Sure, there are dick jokes (Ollie quizzes Gertie after she’s played Doctor with a neighborhood boy, then the child turns the table after catching Dad in the shower with video-store clerk Liv Tyler), masturbation jokes (Ollie, on hearing that Liv does it twice a day, wonders if she won’t get Carpal tunnel syndrome) and an out-of-nowhere 9/11 gag (“‘Cats’ is the second-worst thing that ever happened to New York City”). But the movie’s heart is mush, using adorable-baby reaction shots and vintage pop music used to cue the audience’s sentiments and — for about the 76th time in recent movies — climaxing with an embarrassment-and-triumph parent-child stage performance.

What’s unusual about “Jersey Girl” is how normal it is — not for today but for the mid-40s (“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”) or early 60s (“The Courtship of Eddie’s Father”), when Hollywood doled out, by the sugar-bowlful, stories of sturdy kids who play matchmaker for an ornery, widowed parent. Affleck’s comfortable presence in this very retro film hints at an anomaly: he is a movie star, but of an earlier era. With his good looks, his easy charm, his knack for playing flustered, and then playing it down, he could fit smoothly into a Preston Sturges farce or a Dashiell Hammett mystery.

The bad news is, the Golden Age is dead. The good news: Affleck is just 31, and with a few smart movie choices can have a long career. He’s got plenty of time. When Humphrey Bogart didn’t get his defining film role, in a version of Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon,” he was 41.

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