“It’s turkey time,” sultry Ricki (Jennifer Lopez) tells Larry Gigli (Ben Affleck) toward the close of this new romantic comedy from Martin Brest. She knows what she’s talking about, though the remark would have been more honest had it been made at the very start of the movie. You might have thought that the title is pronounced “Jiggly,” in recognition of the ample endowments of Ms. Lopez and the effort she expends in displaying them. But as the titular character explains not once but twice early on, his name rhymes with “really.” As in: “This is a Gigli bad movie,” a statement that might just become a commonplace.
It’s difficult to understand what was going through Brest’s mind when he penned this disaster, which goes wrong in so many ways that one can barely keep count of them. To begin with, the underlying premise is a dud: Lou (Lenny Venito), a sleazy California mobster, directs his klutzy enforcer (Affleck) to abduct Brian (Justin Bartha), the brother of a federal prosecutor, in order to pressure the guy to drop a case he’s building against Lou’s east coast boss. Then he saddles Gigli with an unwanted partner, the fetching Ricki. It’s inevitable that the unwilling duo will grow fond not only of their hostage, but also of each other.
So far, so bad. But Brest makes this dreary formula worse with several abominable variations. One is to make Brian a mentally-challenged kid, and then tastelessly to portray his disability however his fancy takes him. At first it appears that the boy has Tourette’s, blurting out vulgarities spontaneously; but as the plot wears on he becomes just charmingly slow and docile. Then, in a truly misguided choice, Brest identifies Ricki as a lesbian, making it necessary–in order to explain the inevitable spark that builds between her and Gigli–to suggest that all it takes for her to “jump the fence,” as Larry so elegantly puts it at one point, is meeting an irresistible stud like the lunkheaded hit-man. (The plot twist also results in a perfectly awful sequence in which Ricki’s jealous former partner, played by Missy Crider, breaks in on the pair and misunderstands their relationship. It further means that Affleck has now starred in the best picture ever made about a straight guy falling for a lesbian–Kevin Smith’s “Chasing Amy”–and the worst one, too.) But that’s not all. Presumably recognizing that the flimsy kidnapping scenario won’t support a feature-length movie, even with the long, badly written speeches he gives to each of his leads (Affleck’s, with their frequent sexual slurs, are particularly embarrassing), Brest has added what amount to histrionic cadenzas for three guest stars. The first features Christopher Walken as a verbally florid but singularly obtuse cop who drops in to grill Gigli about the kid who’s disappeared. The second involves Lainie Kazan as Gigli’s raucous mother; here we’re treated to a shot of Kazan’s bare buttocks–a sight we could well do without. And finally Al Pacino shows up to rant and rage mercilessly as the big boss whom the prosecutor has targeted. It’s easy to guess why Pacino agreed to do this grotesquely overwritten scene: he won his Oscar in Brest’s “Scent of a Woman,” and might have considered degrading himself here a suitable gesture of thankfulness. But neither Walken nor Kazan have similar debts to pay.
One could go on indefinitely about the appalling aspects of “Gigli,” from its ludicrous contrivances (we’re asked to believe that Larry and Ricki can not only keep the kid in Gigli’s apartment for days without getting caught, but that they can drive him around in a convertible and take him out to eat without anyone noticing, although a massive search must be underway) to the really vulgar emphasis the story puts on Brian’s obsession with sex (his fantasies involving a jiggly TV show actually become the basis for the idiotic but supposedly uplifting finale). One might also point out that even on the technical level the picture is mediocre. But it’s the acting that’s the ultimate insult–not just in the embarrassing cameos by Walken, Kazan and Pacino, but in the leads. Affleck, who’s done some roles very well (see “Changing Lanes,” for instance), plays Gigli as if he were doing a summer-stock version of “The Sopranos”–everything in the performance is overinflected and amateurish. Lopez doesn’t come on so strong, and so she’s not quite as terrible–merely bland. (A workout sequence borders on mild pornography, however.) One feels compassion for Bartha, who’s really trapped in an impossible role, not only poorly written but blatantly offensive (especially when compared to instances when characters such as this are properly depicted–just think of “Gilbert Grape”); he can take comfort in the fact that other young actors have survived similar indignities. But one doesn’t feel anything for the scenery-chewing Crider or Venito but a profound sense of shame.
I’m sure that all of us wish Affleck and Lopez the best in their much-reported private lives, and their chemistry off-screen may well be extraordinary. On the basis of this fiasco, however, it’s clear that on screen Ben and J-Lo are no Tracy and Hepburn–they’re more like the Sean Penn and Madonna of “Shanghai Surprise.” And their movie is just as rotten as that one.