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Stop giggling, 'Gigli' isn't that bad

The ambitious romantic-comedy is a misfire, to be sure, but the celebrity backlash is out of proportion.

August 15, 2003|Michael Wilmington | Chicago Tribune

Is "Gigli" really the worst "allegedly major movie" of the summer? Of the year? Or of the century, as the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern claims?

Or is it just another example of reverse hype?

The growth of a "movie turkey's" reputation can be a fascinating thing to watch. And "Gigli" (which rhymes with "really") is the latest example in a Hall of Shame lineup that includes fiascoes (or alleged fiascoes) such as "Heaven's Gate," "Can't Stop the Music," "Howard the Duck" and "Ishtar."

This crowd-displeasing new romantic crime comedy, starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez as gang enforcer-lovers, opened to disastrous reviews and tepid numbers Aug. 1. Then, suddenly the movie became a cable TV news phenom of sorts -- with movie critics and commentators grilled on camera about "Gigli's" failings and the history of bad movies in general: from "Robot Monster" and "Plan 9 From Outer Space" to "Glitter" and "Bio-Dome."

What caused this avalanche? Actually, "Gigli" had been a widely trashed movie ever since word started leaking out of the studio and Web critics started lambasting it early on. The fact that stars and off-screen lovers Lopez and Affleck are such constant tabloid and TV subjects obviously fueled the fire. But so did the reputation of its writer-director, Martin Brest, widely admired for "Beverly Hills Cop," "Midnight Run" and "Scent of a Woman," but mostly inactive recently -- except for the bizarre, overlong 1998 romantic comedy-fantasy "Meet Joe Black."

Still, why should the badness of any one movie -- amid so many stinkers -- suddenly become national news? Was "Gigli" really more obnoxious than "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle"? Dumber than "Johnny English"? More stupid and chaotic than "S.W.A.T."? More absurd than "The Core"? Lamer than "Daddy Day Care"? More inept than "From Justin to Kelly"?

I'd passed on "Gigli" at the critics' screenings, even though I generally like Brest and, for that matter, Affleck, Lopez and co-stars Al Pacino and Christopher Walken. Now, intrigued by the brouhaha, I caught it with a (very small) audience on a weekday night at the multiplex.

I watched, bemused. At the end, I was convinced. The all-time turkey pantheon had not been breached. This was like a lot of other cable news TV stories: overblown and overplayed.

Truth to tell, "Gigli" isn't very good. It's an ambitious but failed romantic comedy, which tries to mix dark and light moods, establish a complex style and go deeper than usual into character. But it keeps falling short, never establishing the right tone. And it needs to. "Gigli" plays around comically with sex and death, mental problems, suicide and amorality. It's always on the edge of cruelty.

The story takes chances: Affleck and Lopez as the studly muscle-guy and lesbian hit-woman lovers Larry Gigli and Ricki are separately hired by their scummy gangster boss Louis to kidnap and guard mentally challenged Brian (Justin Bartha). As they hide out with the kid in Gigli's apartment, they trade deviant chatter, literate dialogue and sophisticated allusions, Brest obviously wanting to suggest the unlikely mix of literacy and thuggery in, say, a Damon Runyon story, a Preston Sturges screenplay, or movies such as the Coen brothers' "Raising Arizona" or "Miller's Crossing."

The movie stumbles. But it's hardly the worst I've seen this year. "Gigli" even has some good scenes, notably two riveting cameos by Walken as an obsessed cop and Pacino as the psychopathic gang boss Starkman: two expert, calculated, grandly hammy turns miles ahead of the acting in genuine turkeys such as "From Justin to Kelly," "A Man Apart" or "Old School."

Those movies, and most of the other 2003 fiascoes I've mentioned, are protected because critics expect nothing from them. But that doesn't make these movies any better.

"Gigli" fits a profile though. It's a kind of movie some critics love to hate -- because, they know it's being partly aimed at them. "Gigli" is an attempt at more sophisticated, classy, "edgy" comedy. It has adult references and allusions, like Ricki's recitation on Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military historian. The name "Gigli" itself alludes to famous Italian opera tenor Beniamino Gigli. ("American Wedding" also has multiple allusions to French writers and philosophers, including Descartes and Voltaire -- but it's safe to say most of its audience ignores them.) You need great characters and dialogue to woo critics and capture audiences and "Gigli's" are mostly so-so -- especially Affleck's lumpish, self-sabotaging Gigli.

But so-so doesn't mean one of the worst in history. In this case, critics were just as scornful of the movie's political incorrectness on issues like lesbianism or physical and mental handicaps.

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