Nearly as unwatchable as it is unpronounceable, the gangster comedy "Gigli" arrives in theaters amid a public relations tempest. As anyone within reach of the worldwide flack-net knows, the film stars real-life paramours Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, who, stung by bad publicity about the feature, have vowed never to work with each other again. First, though, the pair should reconsider working with anyone who thought well of a movie hinged on jokes about the disabled, switch-hitting lesbians, and the sight of a dead man's brain splattered across an aquarium.
So forget the hype -- this movie would stink even without its big-ticket stars, which isn't to say that either is entirely blameless. Affleck plays a low-level Los Angeles hood whose surname rhymes with "really" and Lopez plays Ricki, an underworld contractor brought in to ensure that he doesn't screw up a job. Gigli's immediate boss, Louis (Lenny Venito), has ordered his reluctant minion to kidnap the mentally handicapped Brian (newcomer Justin Bartha), the young brother of a federal prosecutor who's causing them business trouble. After luring the kid out of his group home, Gigli retreats to his bachelor's pad, whereupon he, Brian and Ricki become the spurious misfit family so beloved of contemporary Hollywood while the movie grinds to a thudding stop.
For the next 40 minutes or so, Gigli and Ricki swap stale banter as the actors feign animosity and Bartha sneaks off with the movie by channeling Dustin Hoffman's "Rain Man" shtick. Throughout the strained repartee, the jokes keep coming and bombing, but it's not as if the movie is devoid of humor. It's fairly risible when Ricki quotes Sun Tzu by heart and equally gag-worthy when, without a shred of conviction, she declares she's a lesbian just before snuggling in bed next to Gigli. A protracted scene in which the camera and Gigli both leer at Ricki's wobbly yoga moves as she sings the praises of the female anatomy has irrefutable camp value, as does an inevitable seduction capped by the memorable line "it's turkey time -- gobble, gobble." Yes, it certainly is.
After a well-regarded student movie and a couple of misses, Brest hit it big as a director by staying out of Eddie Murphy's way in "Beverly Hills Cop." He subsequently scored with "Midnight Run," which he followed with the more serious "Scent of a Woman" and "Meet Joe Black," both studio-slick and strictly impersonal. The new film marks a return to a more overtly comic register for Brest -- this is the first movie he's taken a writing credit on since his 1979 caper "Going in Style" -- which, in keeping with movie-comedy fashion, mostly involve forced stabs at ostensible "politically incorrect" waggery. The insults about Brian being a "half-wit" are crudely unfunny and made all the more painful by Brest's steady attempts to reduce his stings with sentimentalism.
Unlike the Farrelly brothers, Brest doesn't embrace his bad taste -- he flees from it. Every time Gigli hurls another insult at Brian, Brest and his team cue up a syrupy riff just to let us know that no one on board really thinks the kid is stupid. The frantic backpedaling seems a bid to put the thug into a better light, but it doesn't. Gigli weighs in as such an insufferable lunkhead that it's difficult to think of an actor who could pull him off without shifting the whole movie into pure caricature. A passable actor but a lousy star -- the bigger the movie, the worse he comes across -- Affleck doesn't have the chops or the charm to maneuver around (or past) bad material, and unlike his co-star he can't coast on looks alone.
If Lopez fares somewhat better it's only because her lines aren't as egregious and her beauty affords its own pleasurable dividends. She's as badly miscast as her sapphic warrior is ludicrously conceived, but because her well-manicured persona carries so much extra-added value -- Puffy! The Rump! Ben and Jen! -- Lopez ends up being a welcome distraction, a voluptuary of attractions. That's especially true once the characters hit the street and the story spirals ever further south. Much like Christopher Walken and Al Pacino, both of whom stop by for a pair of resplendently eccentric, too-brief appearances, Lopez proves her big-screen worth mainly by making you forget the movie. When you're this fabulous it just doesn't matter if you're any good.
MPAA rating: R, for sexual content, pervasive language and brief strong violence
Times guidelines: The language is raw, the sex is tame and the violence certainly isn't brief.
Ben Affleck...Larry Gigli
Revolution Studios presents a City Light Films/Casey Silver Production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director and writer Martin Brest. Producers Casey Silver, Martin Brest. Director of photography Robert Elswit. Production designer Gary Frutkoff. Editors Billy Weber, Julie Monroe. Music John Powell. Costume designer Michael Kaplan. Casting Ellen Lewis. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes.
In general release.