The Trial of Ben Affable

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Ben Affleck flashes his forgive-me smile and says, "I'm not really a whoremonger." This plangent one-liner is from his new movie, Jersey Girl, but the gaga-for-gossip public would not have been surprised if it had come from Affleck's recent chats with Jay Leno and Larry King or from a Saturday Night Live skit the other week when he was the guest host. And no, Jennifer Lopez didn't pop in, the way Affleck's ex-ex-girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow did the last time he was the host of SNL.

The Ben-Jen (or, ugh, Bennifer) affair was mild as Hollywood kerfuffle goes. They fell in love, got engaged, broke it off. That sort of embarrassment must happen to a million unfamous people a year. It used to happen to Julia Roberts several times a week. In an awful reverse synergy, the breakup was paired with a famous flop they both starred in, Gigli. Part of that stemmed from the magnitude of the flop. Gigli wasn't car-crash bad; that kind of movie gets rubberneckers into the theaters. It was the sort of event people avert their eyes from. It was man-urinating-in-public bad.

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All this raises the old question, How to distinguish between a movie star and a celebrity? Both are commodities, but one gets consumed in crowded movie theaters, the other in checkout lines. Right now Affleck is Type B. His romance with Lopez sold magazines and newspapers, says a prominent publicist, "but they are all the wrong magazines and newspapers, particularly for an actor who wants to be taken seriously." Another high-ranking flack says, "He's got to stay out of the tabs. This town is fickle. There's always the next Ben Affleck coming up."

Really? Then where are all the other current Ben Afflecks? Clowns aside, there is a shallow pool of American leading men in their 30s. Affleck's pal Matt Damon has had hits and flops, though fewer of each than Ben. Same with Edward Norton. They all bound from action picture to indie, as Affleck has — from Jerry Bruckheimer (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor) to Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jersey Girl), from starring in potential franchise pictures (The Sum of All Fears, Daredevil) to doing cameos in films by friends.

The difference? The other men have reps as serious actors. Among them, Affleck is a lightweight. Hand him a big emotional scene, 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.

Then again, the other guys can't play Ben Affleck — which Affleck does, on TV's guest couches, brilliantly. He radiates not the danger of the modern movie star but the domestic familiarity of the modern television star. He banters, puts himself down and plays along with all the Gigli jokes. That blithe masochism is career smart, of course, but it also suggests a species of heroic ordinariness that 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. What's unusual about the film is how normal it is — not for today but for the '40s (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) or the early '60s (The Courtship of Eddie's Father), when Hollywood doled out sweet stories of sturdy kids who play matchmaker for an ornery widowed parent.

Affleck's comfortable presence in the very retro Jersey Girl hints at an anomaly. He is a movie star but of an earlier era. With his tall, dark and conventionally handsome looks, his easy charm, his knack for playing flustered and then playing it down, he could fit smoothly into a Preston Sturges farce or Dashiell Hammett mystery.

The bad news is, that 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. Humphrey Bogart didn't get his first defining film role, in Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, until he was 41.