We were discussing biases and groupthink, my critic friend and I, when he recalled the press screening for the 2003 megabomb Gigli. “I had to spend 20 minutes before the movie started,” he said, “listening to hack writers cracking each other up with one-liners they’d pre-written about a film that hadn’t even started yet.” If anything, that’s an understatement of the degree to which knives were out when the Ben Affleck/Jennifer Lopez comedy hit theaters that summer. It was greeted with vicious notices (The Wall Street Journal deemed it “The worst movie – all right, the worst allegedly major movie – of our admittedly young century”), unwanted “awards” recognition (it swept that year’s Razzies), and dire box office (its worldwide gross topped out at $7.2m, against a reported $55m budget).
Its title – which rhymes, the film insists, with “really” – became a punchline, and then a shorthand for embarrassing flops. Writer/director Martin Brest, previously an Oscar nominee for Scent of a Woman (and the guiding hand behind Beverly Hills Cop), never made another film. The lingering odor of Gigli was so strong that ads for Affleck and Lopez’s next screen pairing, Jersey Girl, omitted her participation entirely. It took years for the actors to live the picture down.
But it’s important to frame this ghastly reception within the atmosphere of the moment. Affleck and Lopez met during the film’s production and quickly became an item – such a public one that, by the time it hit theaters a year later, the “Bennifer” backlash had built up quite a head of steam. They were young, impossibly good-looking, fabulously wealthy, and clearly hot for each other, so it seemed like a good time to knock them down a peg.
Gigli is not some misunderstood masterpiece – it has, to be clear, plenty of problems. Chief among them is the cringe-y work of Justin Bartha as the mentally challenged younger brother of a federal prosecutor; Larry Gigli (Affleck), a low-level mob hood, is sent to kidnap him. The character (and the performance) came off as a slapdash Rain Man riff when the film came out, and time has certainly not improved it. The same can be said for the sexual politics between Gigli and Ricki (Lopez), another “independent contractor” who is brought in for the job – Larry gets the hots for her right away (in her low-rise jeans and bare midriff, Lopez is a walking 2003 calendar), but quickly discovers that she’s a lesbian. This element was rightly dismissed as a knuckleheaded retread of Affleck’s earlier Chasing Amy.
Ignoring those aspects of the picture can require, at times, carriage-horse level blinders. But there’s much about Gigli to admire, starting with Brest’s cockeyed ear for ornate dialogue. He loves eccentrics – people who have specific, strange ways of communicating – and that comes out most in Lopez’s Ricki, who first divulges her sexuality to Larry by whispering, “This might be a good time to suggest that you not allow the seeds of cruel hope to sprout in your soul.” (“I don’t know what that means, but it sounds beautiful,” the big lug replies.)
Brest also stops the movie cold for a brief, quintessentially weird Christopher Walken performance – verbose, peculiar, filled with sprung timing, unpredictable shifts in volume and intensity, and odd turns of phrase. His appearance was unbilled and unadvertised, so it was a nice surprise for the few of us who turned out for Gigli’s opening weekend; same goes for Brest’s previous star Al Pacino, who turns up as a powerful mobster and (yes) shouts and roars, but also purrs and prowls, and then gets absolutely declawed by Lopez. Throughout the picture, it’s clear that Brest knew what Out of Sight’s Steven Soderbergh and Hustlers’ Lorene Scafaria did: that she’s at her best when she’s got some edge, not in the kind of puffy romcoms that she spent the rest of the decade churning out.
And that edge is what makes her chemistry with Affleck so interesting. (It also helps that they’re photographed by the great Robert Elswitt, who shoots them like the peak-desirable movie stars they are.) When she eventually decides to give him a go, the invitation she extends from bed (“It’s turkey time, gobble gobble”) was singled out in many a review as a crime against cinema – without acknowledging, or even allowing, that it is neither written nor played as a serious moment. It’s playful, and funny, and silly. It lands; other moments don’t.
As Roger Ebert wrote (in one of the film’s few credible reviews), “The movie tries to do something different, thoughtful, and a little daring with their relationship, and although it doesn’t quite work, maybe the movie is worth seeing for some scenes that are really very good.” But in the 21st century, the mixed review has become an endangered species – most readers look for the Rotten Tomatoes rating and pull-quote, and little beyond that. Everything is the absolute holy-shit best or the godawful worst of all time, and there’s nothing in between. Gigli is in between.