Jersey Girl probably sounded like a better idea before Gigli opened and was met to terrible reviews and poor returns at the box office. That film starred Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, and was hated by almost everyone. It was panned so bad that Miramax, the studio distributing Jersey Girl, moved the later film’s release date back, hoping to distance itself from the Gigli scandal. Perhaps it was also to move it to early in the year, where many bad movies are dumped.

The film doesn’t star Lopez, although both actors appear and share a not insignificant amount of screen time. Lopez appears only at the beginning of the film, playing Gertrude, the wife of Ollie Trinke (Affleck). Get your Gigli 2 jokes out of the way now. The couple get a few scenes before Gertrude winds up dying in childbirth. Ollie, unable to handle the stress of being a parent, winds up bursting in the middle of a press conference. He, a publicist, trashes Will Smith and the media in front of hundreds of people, most of whom would later write about him in the paper.

So, Ollie moves back in with his father, Bart (George Carlin), in New Jersey, a far cry from The City. Ollie’s child, Gertie (Raquel Castro), grows up and loves the neighborhood. Ollie winds up meeting a girl working at a video store, Maya (Liv Tyler). But he’s not happy and continues to apply for positions similar to the one he lost seven years earlier, even though he gets laughed out of every interview. The climax involves Ollie making a choice between the two places, and you’ll be completely unsurprised with which one he picks.

Any attempt to create tension fails absolutely. There isn’t any doubt from early on which decision Ollie will make. The film’s director is Kevin Smith, whose specialty is foul-mouthed comedies. This is a PG-13 affair, one that most of the family can go see. It has life lessons about parenthood and priorities, and it feels forced at every turn. Scenes and characters in Jersey Girl can only happen in the movies. As a result, they lose credibility. It’s hard to accept life lessons in a method that isn’t applicable to reality.

You can see the intent with each scene far before it’s supposed to be clear. “Oh, I’m supposed to laugh/sniffle now,” you think each time a new scene pops up. It’s too easy and predictable. Part of Smith’s early success came from bucking the trend; with Jersey Girl, he’s adhering as closely as he can to formula. Chasing Amy was similar in that it was more dramatic than funny, but this one is just a waste.

The strength of Kevin Smith movies comes in the dialogue. His writing is natural and funny. It isn’t here. It feels forced and any humor would be benefited by a laugh track. In fact, there are many moments in Jersey Girl that feel lifted from a sitcom. Any sitcom; they’re all kind of the same, aren’t they? apart from the overarching story — which could be adapted into a television show, too, I suppose — Jersey Girl really does seem like it would have worked better as a two- or three-season show on cable.

Of course, then it would have had to account for the inevitable growth of its true star, Raquel Castro, who is undeniably cute in the role and does bear a striking resemblance to Jennifer Lopez. You believe that Castro could be Lopez’s child. She’s as good in this film as any 9-year-old can be. Her character isn’t believable — she’s one of those kids who is far smarter and more mature than she should and uses that as leverage in situations; they don’t really exist outside the movies — but Castro does a good job in that role.

But listen to the climax. It involves so many clichés that you have to believe that Smith was removed from the writer’s chair and the script was finished by a robot. Ollie has to make his decision, attempt to make it in time for his daughter’s school play (while overcoming a number of obstacles on the street) and by the end we await someone to start clapping, slowly, as you do. Jersey Girl is coming out in 2004, not 1944. How can any of this make an audience feel sentimental or suspense? I don’t think it can.

Ben Affleck is a believable father in the lead role. He genuinely seemed to care for his daughter. Liv Tyler has comedic moments as the video store clerk, but you can’t for a second believe the “romance” between her and Affleck. Not only do the two have no chemistry but the screenplay relegates their relationship to a very background role. Geroge Carlin actually does a very good job as the grandfather. Cameos from Jason Lee, Matt Damon, and Will Smith are good distractions but little more.

Jersey Girl works best when it’s not trying to force us into a state of mind. But with each passing scene, you’ll be able to tell early on whether the film wants you to laugh or cry, and none of that really works. The film isn’t funny — perhaps the PG-13 restraint cut into Smith’s natural sense of humor — and its drama fails at every turn. It has some good actors, with Raquel Castro really making an impression, but it is ultimately a failure because you can’t believe in anything that it does or has to say.