Friday, September 22, 2023

Gigli: Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez are married, so it’s time to watch

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The release of the infamous train wreck of Bennifer giglic blew right past me, an up-and-coming college student, in the doldrums of the summer of 2003. Since then, thanks to its reputation, it has only existed in my mind as an abbreviation for disaster. I was in no rush to verify.

It was the Las Vegas wedding of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez that finally drove me to it. An introduction, in case you need it: Affleck and Lopez met on the set of giglic in 2002 and became an item. They got engaged before the film was released the following year, then broke up in January 2004 and moved on.

But last July, in an uneasy pandemic summer, the couple got back together. And while their pairing had provoked much scorn in the early years, it was now an unabashed source of joy for everyone, including them. A year later, on July 16, 2022, they finally tied the knot.

So this week it was time to watch giglic.

Here’s the thing: the movie really isn’t quite as bad as its reputation makes it out to be. As others have noted, Bennifer’s disgrace contributed greatly to its reception the first time around. (Metacritic rates it as “overwhelmingly hated”, at 18/100.) Theaters dropped it like a hot potato; it opened in 2,215 theaters, but fell by a record 81.9 percent on its second weekend and 97 percent on its third weekend. That means it was playing in 73 theaters by its third weekend — a wild bombshell for a movie starring not just Affleck and Lopez, but Christopher Walken and Al Pacino. Al Pacino!

And while many turn-of-the-millennium movies feel like they’re from another planet, especially when it comes to misogyny and sexuality, giglic comes from another universe. It’s basically the story of a petty mobster named Larry Gigli (rhymes with real, played by Affleck) who is hired to kidnap Brian (Justin Bartha), the mentally retarded younger brother of a prosecutor who is a much bigger-time mobster. (Pacino) alone. Then another contractor, introducing himself as Ricki (Lopez), shows up to keep an eye on Larry and to keep an eye on Brian. She and Larry naturally get into a relationship.

Except that Ricki loves women, a fact she makes very clear to Larry from the start, which makes giglic one of the many movies where a lesbian’s biggest hurdle to being with a guy is that she hasn’t met Ben Affleck yet. (Also see chasing amy.) And Brian’s characterization is — well, it’s a lot. Narratively, there’s really no reason Brian had to be written as someone with an intellectual disability, and not as a smart 11-year-old, for example. The main point seems to be that it’s funny to laugh at the stupid things he says. It’s… not great.

The couple in bed.

Lopez and Affleck in gigli.
Sony Photos

But, but, but. While giglic offers plenty to hate – the tone is everywhere, the score is mind-boggling, and, well, there’s everything mentioned above – I found myself getting curiously nostalgic, and not for ultra-low jeans. Writer and director Martin Brest is no slouch; among his work is the highly decorated Fragrance of a womanrecorded ten years earlier giglic. Affleck, who is a really good director in his own right, has attributed his success to his experience watching direct actors from Brest on the giglic set. In the press notes of the filmthe cast praised Brest’s directing, with Lainie Kazan playing Larry’s mother, saying that “it’s very rare to be directed in such an open, positive way.”

and notes on the plot of the original version of the filmwritten by film critic Michael Dequina after an early showing, showing that giglic was once a darker, weirder, and much more coherent film. The main difference from what has come to the screen is that Ricki is alone: pretend be a murderer. Reduced to scene-stealing but slightly baffling cameos, Pacino and Walken’s characters were much more integrated into the story. The appearance of Ricki’s girlfriend – who shows up in the theatrical version and slits her wrists and then never reappears – suddenly takes on meaning: she is the real hit man. Other than Larry and Ricki starting out for each other, things start to make more sense. Even their affiliation takes on some kind of logic. And in the original version, Larry dies at the end.

What happened? It seems that Revolution Studios head Joe Roth was concerned after mixed reactions in test screenings that the film would not fare well, and that he would lose his hefty investment in the film’s co-stars (Lopez made $12 million, Affleck $12.5 million). So even though Brest had finalized the film, he was heavily armed to recreate it from a weird, offbeat movie about a mobster who wants a romantic comedy.

giglic doesn’t work like a rom-com at all. But knowing this made me wistful for a time when mid-budget rom-coms were the kind of thing you’d make if you needed to recoup your investment. Only in retrospect do we know that 2003 was almost the end of the rom-com reign; soon they would regularly flop, and now you’re in luck if you can find a watchable new rom-com on streaming services.

And yet it’s nice to see how high the genre flew back then. How to Lose a Man in 10 Days earned over $100 million at the box office, a sign of success anyway, with Something has to give on its heels at just over $80 million. Love actually, Intolerable cruelty, My fat Greek weddingand underestimated the criminal Down with love are under the other rom-coms of that year. This was a time when stars were in mid-budget popcorn movies that now go straight to streaming, and we went to watch comedies, made from original screenplays, in the theater. It was fun to laugh with other people and you would feel good going home. Now those kinds of movies are completely pushed out by big budget franchise movies that require diagrams and homework assignments to stay straight.

Lopez, Affleck and Justin Bartha in Gigli.

giglic is not good – not at all – but at least it seems like it tried something.
Sony Photos

And then sometimes you just discover the movie you bought a ticket for… giglic, and it sucks. Even so giglic has its charms. You can sense an independent intelligence – in this case Brest’s – fighting to get through the mud and confusion. Bad movies of that era were generally bad in weird and interesting ways. Like, I don’t know what he went for but you can tell he went for something. You’re scratching your head about how it went wrong, but at least that’s clear this one wasn’t really the movie they wanted to make.

I thought of this because the week I watched giglici also watched the gray manthe new Netflix joint starring Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans and Ana de Armas (who is famous) also dated Affleck for a while, although that is neither here nor there). And it’s bad, but in a deeply boring way. Movies like the gray man and the multitude of other very expensive, very boring movies does not show any ambition or drive to make a movie, but rather a lot of content to send down the tube. (And, in this case, one where the CGI looks really awful.)

Anyway, what was potentially fun about it? giglic is the way it tried to play with the gangster character. Larry doesn’t have a heart of gold, but he does have ambitions to live a normal life, and in the original version, he gets what he wanted. He learned to be a gangster by seeing them on TV. However, today’s generic bad movie feels like it was made by an AI that fed all the movies in the world and spat out another variation on one.

All this should not be taken as an endorsement of giglic. It’s not even particularly fun to watch, and in our world of unlimited entertainment, who has the time?

But I think I’m glad I saw it, and I think I owe Bennifer for the reminder that movies don’t always have to be the way they are often in demand these days. If Affleck is grateful for the experience — after all, it’s where he met his wife – then who am I to judge?

giglic is available to rent or buy on digital platforms.

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