Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Monday, June 23, 2014

Summer Not-Busters: Gigli (2003)

Director: Martin Brest
Starring: Ben Affleck, Jennifer Lopez, Justin Bartha
Domestic Gross: $6,087,542

You almost have to feel bad for Gigli. Under other circumstances, it would have been released and dismissed as just another bad movie, forgotten and left to die quietly and with dignity. Instead, it had the misfortune of being released when the pop culture tide had turned against its two stars and after all the knives had been sharpened. Don't get me wrong. Gigli is terrible, an utter mess of a movie in which no one really seems to know what they should be doing because the project has no voice of its own, but I'm not sure that it's actually "the worst movie of all time" or that it deserved to be so ruthlessly savaged that you would be forgiven for thinking that on opening weekend it had come to life and stabbed an audience member to death (given the box office, perhaps I should say "the audience member" *rimshot*). Gigli is a bad movie, but it's bad in such ordinary ways that it's hard, eleven years after the fact and with "Bennifer" so far in the distance, to get worked up about it.

The eponymous protagonist of the story is Larry Gigli (Ben Affleck), a small time hood tasked with the kidnapping of Brian (Justin Bartha), the mentally challenged brother of a federal prosecutor who is after Gigli's boss' boss. The kidnapping goes off without a hitch and Gigli takes Brian back to his apartment in order to await further instructions, only to learn on the arrival of an independent contractor named Ricki (Jennifer Lopez) that his boss didn't trust him enough to see the job to its completion. Trying to make the best of it now that they're forced into close quarters, Gigli tries to transition his professional relationship with Ricki into a personal relationship, only to be told, repeatedly, that she's a lesbian and has no interest in him sexually (at least until she decides, seemingly at random, that maybe she kind of does). Meanwhile, as Gigli and Ricki become increasingly attached to Brian, they need to find a way to extricate both him and themselves from the situation as the authorities threaten to close in and as the mob boss (Al Pacino) on whose behest the plan was undertaken in the first place shows up to express his displeasure with the plot.

Written and directed by Martin Brest, who in better times was credited with such films as Beverly Hills Cop and Midnight Run, Gigli is a misshapen beast of a film which never really settles on a tone. Overall, I suppose the film is striving to be a comedy, perhaps even a romantic comedy, but it has a few rather dark scenes that don't really fit into that. Further, it's not really funny, which undermines any desire it may have to be a comedy, and the "sexy banter" between Gigli and Ricki is so labored and over-written that it smothers whatever romantic chemistry Affleck and Lopez presumably had. Gigli wants to be too many things: a gritty movie about a couple of hoods where death can occur violently and on the spur of the moment; a heartwarming story about a sheltered, mentally challenged kid getting a chance to fulfill his lifelong dream of being in close proximity to boobs (seriously, Brian as a character can be summed up by three things: he's mentally challenged, he likes old school rap music, and he's obsessed with scantily clad women and the promise that that entails); and an opposites attract romance in which the duo go back and forth between fighting and, well... None of this works because the film is too goofy to be gritty, the Brian character is too ill-conceived and crosses too far into "Simple Jack" territory to ever tug at the heartstrings, and nothing about the Gigli/Ricki pairing is remotely compelling.

Nothing about any of that is surprising - a film doesn't nurture a reputation as one of the worst ever made unless it fails in multiple ways - but what is surprising is that for an all too brief moment, it actually does demonstrate that it has the germ of an interesting idea. In the case of Gigli, that interesting idea comes in the form of its flirtation with playing with the notion of naturalized gender roles. Anyone who remembers the trailer for this movie knows that there's a point where Gigli aggressively declares that "in every relationship there's a bull and a cow." In that moment, he imagines himself to be the bull and Ricki to be the cow, but when it comes time for the two to consummate their relationship, Gigli immediately falls into the submissive role. Not only is Ricki the initiator and the dominant figure in this scene, but everything about the way the sequence is shot frames Gigli in a way that is usually reserved for female character, focusing on his body before and after as the passive flesh to be looked at but lacking in the agency for action. There aren't a lot of films that would take their tough guy hero and make him, for lack of a better term, "the girl" in a love scene (nor, to give credit where it's due, are there many actors who would go along with it) and for the rarity of it alone, it's an interesting idea. Everything about the way that idea is executed, however, is cringe inducing at best and just laughable at worst, from the dialogue which leads into the scene (which, again, is initiated by Ricki despite several declarations throughout the film that she's not sexually interested in men), to the fact that the scene is interminably long, and the fact that afterwards Gigli literally "moo"s in order to demonstrate that he has accepted his role as the submissive partner/the cow. In a better movie this might work, but man does it ever fall flat on its face here.

On a story level, and just in terms of plain logic, there's a lot about Gigli that doesn't work. Why, for example, if Gigli is such a screw up, does his boss assign him to this highly sensitive project in the first place? Why, if the purpose of having Ricki there is to ensure that Gigli doesn't lose Brian, does the boss demand that Gigli and Ricki come meet with him and leave Brian behind? Why is it so easy for Gigli to get into the facility where Brian is living and just walk out with him? And those are just three of the most obvious questions. Gigli and Ricki, despite being softer than marshmallows, are supposed to be hardened criminals whose reputations precede them, which would imply that they probably have police records (the fact that they're both kind of dumb also implies that they would have police records). Yet, when they're tasked with cutting off Brian's thumb to send to his brother and decide to use the thumb of a corpse from a morgue instead, the authorities don't immediately descend on Gigli's apartment despite the fact that these two geniuses handled the envelope without gloves and thus their prints are all over it, in addition to Gigli's saliva because he licks the envelope to seal it. Gigli spends a lot of time posturing about how he's the best in the business, yet these two are the worst criminals audiences have ever been asked to take seriously.

The film does nothing to help the actors in terms of characterization, but the actors don't exactly help the film in that respect either. Affleck is an actor of limited range who can be good within that range but can seem lost when he ventures out of it. I think he can be good, for example, in moments which require restrained emotion or in light-hearted scenes of deliberate comedy. One thing he's not, however, is intimidating. Despite his size, he's not an imposing figure, and when he tries to play tough here it just seems... silly. He fares better, however, than Bartha, who appears to have gone to the Eric Cartman school of acting mentally challenged. I'm genuinely shocked than anyone in charge of making or releasing this film could watch any scene involving Brian and not pull the plug on it based on how offensive it is. The film's depiction of lesbians is pretty problematic, too, in that it has Ricki hop into bed with Gigli and has her ex-girlfriend show up just long enough to act crazy and make a suicide attempt, but Lopez is at least able to put a little bit of conviction into her horrifically inconsistent character. But, really, the only actor who emerges from this mess completely unscathed is Christopher Walken, who shows up for one scene, does his Christopher Walken thing, and then disappears.

Gigli is not a good movie. Nor is it a movie that's so bad it's good. It's a film that doesn't work, with performances which never find their footing, but it's not the worst movie I've ever seen and at least it has the decency to be normal movie length instead of stretching its badness into 3 epic hours (I'm looking in your direction Alexander). Were it not for the circumstances in which it was made and released, Gigli would have no distinction at all, but its enduring power as a symbol of everything that's wrong with celebrity culture is what has kept it alive, if ever so faintly, in the memory. But, really, Gigli is a film of so little consequence that it can't even live up to its status as "the worst film ever made." Hell, it's not even the worst film Ben Affleck has ever made.

Should It Have Been a Blockbuster? Ha ha ha... no.

No comments: