Gigli

Will nobody spare a kind word for Gigli? This odd, garrulous whatever-it-is, which joined the ranks of notorious flops practically before it was even released, has garnered a remarkable 8% rating on rottentomatoes.com (meaning the other 92% of the collected reviews savaged it) — worse than Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (27%), worse than The Life of David Gale (20%), worse than Dumb and Dumberer (11%), yes, even worse than The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (19%). I submit that even if Orson Welles had risen from the grave and directed Gigli, the numbers would still have been in the basement. The critics have had their knives out for this one, because they’re as sick of Ben and J.Lo — the one-time media prince and princess — as the rest of us.

I can’t call Gigli a misunderstood masterwork, but I’m not ashamed to say I enjoyed it. The movie, about two mob enforcers (Ben Affleck as the titular Gigli, Jennifer Lopez as the false-named Ricki) assigned to kidnap the mentally-challenged brother (Justin Bartha) of a federal prosecutor working a mob case, is weirdly, almost perversely digressive. Writer-director Martin Brest refuses to push his characters towards some sort of chintzy shoot-out or car chase; he likes to leave them in a room and listen to them argue, philosophize, ruffle each other’s feathers. As he’s shown in his earlier work (Beverly Hills Cop, Scent of a Woman, Midnight Run, Meet Joe Black), Brest is more interested in the doodles in the margins than in the actual text. He loves improv and he loves actors; he brings in a few powerhouses (Christopher Walken, Lainie Kazan, and a gay-inflected, gun-waving Al Pacino) and lets them ramble and rant.

Ben Affleck is always falling in love with unattainable women, either lesbians (Chasing Amy) or assassins (Daredevil), and here he’s got both at once. Ricki, the sort of contract killer who quotes from Sun Tzu and curls up with a Thich Nhat Hanh book in bed, weighs in with a playfully lusty speech in praise of female contours; Gigli goes slack in the jaw, knowing she’s got a point. This movie is too stuffed with bizarre detail to be waved off as conventional — I particularly liked Ricki’s theory about masculine and feminine methods of looking at one’s fingernails. Every reel seems to bring a fresh supporting character to storm in and paint in bold colors, whether it’s Lainie Kazan as Gigli’s mom (who has sexual secrets of her own) or Missy Crider in a startling walk-through as Ricki’s jealous ex-girlfriend.

The premise of two mob killers (California mob killers, yet) stuck with a cutely mentally ill kid is a bit too high-concept, but Gigli gets some mileage out of it; the boy, named Brian, has quirks and obsessions of his own — everyone in the movie is flustered and driven by sexual appetite. By the time Al Pacino shows up in full roar as a mob associate who leaves someone’s brains dripping into a fish tank (we get a close-up of a fish nibbling at the gray matter), you realize that this is only a Bennifer movie by default; entire scenes go by wherein the two stars clam up while newcomer Justin Bartha babbles or Christopher Walken takes his usual sweet time delivering his lines.

Brest has made, almost spitefully, a movie that will not appeal to the tabloid followers of the Ben-and-J.Lo saga, or to anyone else looking for a straightforward narrative. Directors used to be free to make this sort of strange, oblique film in the ’70s. Ever since Beverly Hills Cop made him a player, Martin Brest hasn’t been content to work within mainstream structures without warping them a little. If you look at Gigli as the work of a director who wants to take viewers on a ride substantially different from the one they signed up for, it’s considerably and consistently of interest.

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