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Gigli

Director: Martin Brest
Cast: Ben Affleck, Jennifer Lopez, Justin Bartha, Lenny Venito, Christopher Walken, Lainie Kazan, Al Pacino

(Sony; US DVD: 9 Dec 2003)

Macho Puff

It’s understandable that Columbia’s DVD of Gigli comes without extras. No commentaries, no deleted scenes, no alternative endings. Not even a “Making Of” featurette. Nonetheless, it’s tempting to imagine what such materials might have been, given that the film received what had to be the most vehement critical drubbing of any released this past year. I, for one, would have appreciated another look at Ben Affleck’s surprisingly gracious and quite funny talk show appearances at around the same time. Promoting the second Project Greenlight movie—which will much sooner be forgotten and forgiven than this one—he joked at his own expense, claiming he was as sick of hearing about Bennifer as anyone else.


Perhaps he wasn’t lying. Since the movie tanked and the wedding was postponed, he’s kept a low profile, emerging recently to wish his ex Gwynnie well with her pregnancy. And J-Lo: what’s happened to her, anyway?


While hiding out seems a reasonable thing to do following the massively public debacle of Gigli, seeing it again on DVD reveals—again, for this reviewer—that more egregious pop cultural events have and will be perpetrated on the tv viewing populace, including but hardly limited to the election of Governor Schwarzenegger or the marriage of Trista and Ryan.


The movie opens with a wide-angle close-up on Affleck’s Larry Gigli, a mob enforcer who tends to philosophize with his marks. “You see,” he says, leaning into the camera, “After all is said and done, the only thing you can be really sure of, the only thing you can really count on in this world, is that you never fucking know.” His hair slicked back, his jacket black leather, Gigli works for the glowery wiseguy Louis (Lenny Venito). No matter the situation—whether he is extolling existential truths or enduring yet another dressing down by his boss—Larry’s face looks blank. It could be that Affleck is acting this vacuity, or maybe he, like Larry, has little sense of what’s at stake.


Larry’s expressionless face reflects his search for a plot to occupy his floundering energies. Perhaps the film is Affleck’s slow-motion version of The Bourne Identity or maybe even Gerry, a consideration of the fragmentation of time and identity in postmodern culture. The pokey pace leaves far too much time for audience rumination, which becomes especially grueling when Larry meets Ricki (Lopez), also hired by Louis, ostensibly to ensure that Larry does his job. (Efficiency is not a high priority here, either in terms of production or sense.) They’re assigned to kidnap a federal prosecutor’s autistic brother, Brian (Justin Bartha, who spews incoherent language like he has Tourette’s). The goal is to make the prosecutor back off the gangster Starkman (Al Pacino, whose embarrassing ostentation stops just short of the hoo-ha that has haunted him since he first ran it in Brest’s lamentable Scent of a Woman).


The two hirelings begin at odds, develop a mutual affection, and rethink their profession. Oddly, the film is less formulaic than it sounds: these “buddies” don’t kill anyone, don’t screech around in Larry’s pale blue Impala, and don’t showdown with the gangsters or cops. In fact, the films sole detective is the exceedingly quirky Jacobellis (Christopher Walken), who appears in one brief scene, inquiring after Brian’s whereabouts: “I’m searching for news of the underground,” he murmurs. Just what this means is unclear: is Jacobellis a friend of Larry’s? Is Larry his informant? When no info appears forthcoming, the detective leaves, never to be heard from again. (This would be the deleted scene I’d most like to see, the one explaining Jacobellis’ reason for being.)


Jacobellis’ immediate function is to inform Ricki and Larry of Brian’s import, that is, his brother’s identity. This even as they’re becoming unprofessionally fond of the boy. Facing an imminent crisis, they don’t leave town, return Brian or figure a way to elude Louis. Instead, they go for tacos. And at the food stand, Larry’s love for his associate is cemented: when local teens with a boom box incur his wrath, the Sun Tsu-quoting Ricki reveals her own intimidation skills, namely, bullshitting about sinister-sounding martial arts techniques. It’s an adroit mini-performance (as Lopez delivers throughout—refreshingly low-key, compared to the many men who overact in every scene), convincing the kids to stay in school and Larry to rethink his macho posturing.


Impressed, he sets about trying to impress her in turn, even bringing her round (sort of accidentally) to meet his mom (Lainie Kazan), to whom he must give insulin injections; this allows a gratuitous and unfunny shot of her butt in a thong, the sort of shot that makes you wonder what anyone working on this film was imagining as “tone.” Then again, nothing in Gigli is sustained, from pace to plot points to character purposes. It appears to have been chopped up and put back together again more than once.


Consider, for one example, the wholly bizarre scene where Larry, instructed to send Brian’s thumb to his brother, comes up with an alternative plan. He has the kid stand nearby in the morgue while he saws a thumb off a corpse with a plastic knife; the sound inspires hiphop fan Brian to recite “Baby Got Back”—this ill-advised collision of corpse-humor and the completely exhausted white-folks-rapping joke is a serious low point. Brian’s utter reverence for Larry is another of the film’s puzzles, as is Ricki’s growing trust in his judgment, even as it is plainly defective.


For all its obvious inconsistency and clumsiness, Gigli has one peculiar point in its favor. It has to do with Larry’s appealing softness (despite his adamant palookaville-inspired denial of same) and his moral education, specifically in the form of Ricki’s lesbianism. She is, of course, gorgeous, confident, and quick on her feet, as well as currently mixed up with the desperately infatuated Robin (Missy Crider). This relationship leads to the film’s most flagrantly misconceived scene, a frankly brutal suicide attempt, where Robin slices her arms with a kitchen knife. Even worse than this abrupt mood swing is what follows: at what is evidently Robin’s most anguished moment (or at least she looks anguished, viewed through a window, at a distance, from Larry’s overtly yearning perspective), Ricki puts an end to that plotline and turns her full attention to her goofball partner in crime.


That Ricki is a lesbian mob enforcer with a good heart is less complex than vaguely ludicrous, but it’s not calamitous until she goes all Chasing Amy: she falls for Larry. The motivation for this shift is missing, unless you count that he alternates between acting like a macho puff and a hurt puppy: which one of these is the “real” Larry, who so attracts the canny Ricki is unclear. When he starts explaining his “sadness” to her—he’s sad because he’s been sleeping next to a beautiful woman who’s also “untouchable” and “unhaveable,” a “dykeasaurus rex”—she looks at him with love. Why?


Of the film’s many anomalous scenes, the most startling concerns Ricki’s instruction to Larry on the overvaluation of the penis and the meaning and worth of the perfect lips between her legs, that is, “what I am proud to call my pussy.” That she delivers said instruction while stretching on her yoga mat enhances his appreciation, and his vacant face gets something like its own workout. Camera angles set him up, of course, to reflect viewers’ similar enthrallment. It’s no longer a masculine presumption, but a giving over to her, agreeing to be her “bitch,” accepting his own vulnerability and, after a fashion, generosity. So maybe Larry’s right. You never fucking know.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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31 Jul 2003
His hair slicked back, his face set in an expression resembling impassivity, Larry Gigli (Ben Affleck) tends to philosophize with his marks.
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