[1 August 2003]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Alert: Minor plot points revealed below.
“When all is said and done, the only thing you can really count on in this world is that you never fucking know.” His hair slicked back, his face set in an expression resembling impassivity, Larry Gigli (Ben Affleck) tends to philosophize with his marks, explaining the futility of resisting or the percentage in paying back whatever money they owe his boss, the twitchy, glowery Louis (Lenny Venito). Larry doesn’t know much. A Los Angeles-based mob enforcer who may or may not have aspirations, he usually appears clueless: when his latest assignment only gives him half the money he owes, Larry reports it to Louis as if it’s no big deal. Though Louis puts considerable energy into his rebuke, it’s hard to say if Larry understands what’s at stake. His face remains a blank.
It could be that Affleck is acting this vacuity, or maybe he, like Larry, has little sense of what’s at stake. In any event, much has been already made of his poor performance in the title role in Martin Brest’s Gigli. The actor has surely added to this “muchness,” with earnest efforts to promote the film and his relationship with his costar, the dazzling Jennifer Lopez. The mid-July Dateline interview is especially egregious in this regard—“One of the things I was most struck by was how she was able to do the sort of rock star thing and be an actress as well” says Ben, “A lot of people have tried to do it and it’s a really hard thing to both at a high level”—leading to rumors of a Jen-Ben backlash, one explanation for the outcry against the film.
Still, the machine chugs along, framing Gigli as the occasion for the couple’s fateful meeting. Even in this capacity, though, the film is wanting, offering few clues as to their depth and sincerity, or their “chemistry.” Perhaps what’s revealed in Larry’s blank face and his search for a plot to occupy his floundering energies, the movie is Affleck’s version of The Bourne Identity, a look at the fragmentation of time and identity in postmodern culture, only this time in slow motion and without the violent choreography.
This last is somewhat unusual, given that Larry and Ricki (Lopez) are both professional killers hired by Louis. Their mission is to kidnap a federal prosecutor’s autistic brother, Brian (Justin Bartha, whose performance careens between emulating Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar turn and spewing like he has Tourette’s Syndrome), in order 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.
The plot sounds formulaic, but the movie is actually less so. The “buddies” don’t kill anyone, don’t screech around in Larry’s pale blue Impala, and don’t showdown with the gangsters or cops. Christopher Walken plays Jacobellis, the film’s sole detective, in one brief scene where he asks after the missing boy’s whereabouts: “I’m searching for news of the underground,” he murmurs. Just what’s up is unclear: is Jacobellis a friend of Larry’s? Is Larry his informant? What? When no info appears forthcoming, the detective leaves, never to be heard from again.
Jacobellis’ ostensible function is to tell 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 functions. 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 the corpse-humor from Bad Boys II 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, which is plainly defective.
For all its obvious inconsistency and clumsiness, Gigli has one peculiar point in its favor, which soon becomes troubling as well. (Most often, the film can’t seem to get out of its own way.) It has to do with Larry’s appealing softness (despite his adamant palookaville-ish denial of same) and his moral education, specifically in the form of Ricki as lesbian. She is, of course, gorgeous, confident, and quick on her feet, as well as 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. Even worse than this abrupt swing in mood (by this point in the film, you’d think you’d be used to them) 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 locked-out and overtly yearning perspective), Ricki puts an end to that plotline.
That Ricki is a lesbian assassin with a good heart is less complex than vaguely ludicrous, but it’s not calamitous until she goes all Chasing Amy, that is, falling, however tentatively, 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 confident, 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. Um, why?
Of the many anomalous scenes cobbled together for Gigli, the one garnering the most attention 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 expression here 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. Perhaps Larry is right, you never fucking know.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/gigli/