Jersey Girl

Directed by Kevin Smith. Starring Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, and George Carlin. Rated PG.

Jersey Girl is a sweet little trifle that keeps trying to bloom into something truly memorable. Writer-director Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy) has come up with an intriguing premise for a great date movie, kind of what you'd get if you put a fresh spin on an old-fashioned weeper and set it against the backdrop of a Bruce Springsteen song. It doesn't take long to realize that the story, packed with blue-collar charm, is especially close to Smith's heart.

Ben Affleck stars as the emotionally shell-shocked Ollie Trinke, a grieving widower who can't get past the trauma of his wife's death in childbirth. (Watch for Jennifer Lopez's radiant cameo before she checks out way too soon.) Ollie sucks at single fatherhood, so when he gets fired from his high-flying job as a Manhattan spin doctor, his last-ditch stab at damage control is to move back in with his working-class dad (George Carlin, letter-perfect as a diaper-changing hardhat who has a statue of the Virgin Mary on his front lawn).

Downsizing to the wilds of New Jersey is only supposed to be temporary, just until the smooth-talking Ollie can restore his shredded reputation. Seven years later, he's still blackballed from public relations and still living with Dad, only now he has morphed into a city maintenance worker, the kind of guy whose glory days are fading faster than an old flannel shirt. There are, however, a couple of bright spots in Ollie's life: a loving daughter (Raquel Castro) and a budding romance with a dishy sex researcher (an endearing Liv Tyler) who's intrigued by his record-breaking stretch of celibacy. But Ollie can't help obsessing on his former life in the fast lane.

Sounds like a great story line, right? Unfortunately, Jersey Girl never manages to live up to its potential, thanks mostly to a typically spotty performance by Affleck. This is the project that was supposed to make us forget his embarrassing work in the awful Gigli. And it does, sort of. Affleck is not half bad when he's relies on casual charm, but when he's at his worst (which is pretty much any scene that requires heartfelt emotion), he stops things cold. We're ultimately left with a promising movie that can't quite work up enough goodwill to get where it wants to go.