I can’t say I avoided Gigli due to all the terrible reviews and the Razzie sweep. There are plenty of movies commonly cited as lousy that I like or even rate (to mention a selection of Razzie’s targets: Ishtar, Jaws: The Revenge, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Hudson Hawk, Last Action Hero, Gods of Egypt). Martin Brest’s previous film had received bad notices but I unabashedly think it’s a good ’un. I had little opinion of J-Lo, except that she was appealing in Out of Sight. Mostly, I couldn’t muster any willpower to investigate because I found, and still do, Batfleck to be underwhelming. So I’ve finally stooped to checking it out, well in advance of its doubtless twentieth anniversary celebrations, and… Well, at one point, Louis (Lenny Venito) asks Gigli (Batfleck) “Do you happen to know what excoriate means?” and I think this might be the answer.
And no, watching Gigli had nothing to do with Bennifer “rekindling” their romance; that’s surely some massive coincidence, unless I somehow willed them into a reunion through the horrific reverberations of my experience percolating through the aether, deigning that they should suffer too.* Is Gigli painful to watch? That’s usually my yardstick of a truly dreadful movie, and at times, yes, Gigli is painful to watch. For much of the proceedings, though, it is simply entirely bereft of a compass. Of what movie it is, what direction it’s going in and why it’s asking us to spend time with these utterly charmless protagonists.
You can make a mob movie about charmless characters if they’re doing interesting things, but Gigli spends a significant portion of its running time hanging out at the title character’s apartment, seemingly waiting for an urgent plot to kick in that never does. During which time, Gigli – who finds Batffleck playing thick, which he can do, but no more appealingly than he can someone of moderately blank intelligence – spars with lesbian enforcer Ricki (Jenny from the Block) and gets annoyed with and then learns to care about the mentally-challenged and kidnapped Brian (Justin Bartha).
J-Lo’s performance is mostly plain forgettable, such that you only really notice it’s pretty bad when Ricki has to step up to the plate. Try watching her scene with the loud-music-playing punks – she threatens to liquify one of their eyeballs – or her setting Starkman (Al Pacino) straight – she can’t make talking sense sound other than feeble – and conclude otherwise.
Mainly, her interplay with beau Ben consists of tiresome, barrel-scraping back and forth about sexual preferences (did Brest think this was titillating? Amusing? Daring?) that’s designed to become (sweet?) as they soften towards each other. I’m not sure what Ben’s fixation here is, this forming a lesbian triptych with his charming directorial debut I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meat Hook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney (a pretty standard Mouse House confessional, then) and Chasing Amy. And aside from the first of them, they seem to be advocating Ben’s irresistible allure. Kavorka, doubtless.
Bartha’s pretty good, clearly dedicated to playing Brian correctly and staying commendably in character while forced to deliver dialogue about his sneezing penis (journalistically-derelict The Guardian recently called Bartha’s work “cringey”, but the fault isn’t his performance). I suspect his absence from any awards call sheets is based, obviously, on the movie sucking, but also because, as Tropic Thunder would have it, he goes “full retard”. You need the acceptable face of disability to win Oscars – Dustin in Rain Man – or triumphing over adversity – Daniel in My Left Foot. All Brian achieves is going “to the Baywatch”. Where, in a truly excruciating sequence that leaves you completely certain Gigli’s lambasting wasn’t nearly harsh enough, he meets a girl and dances to a cheesy song. I’d hazard a pitch for this was along the lines of “Rain Man with gangsters and a love interest”. And then look what happened.
The specifics of the intention may forever remain unclear. There’s an attempt at a jaunty, carefree turn, reinforced by John Powell’s score, in the vein of Get Shorty or the following year’s misfire The Big Bounce, but Brest’s original cut was messed with by a studio set on upping the Bennifer romance and comedy (huh?) angle. As opposed to the mob film it was. I’m not sure what tone the picture could have had, to be honest, since it’s neither funny nor romantic even in this cut.
Reputedly, the Brest version – darker, more violent and unsurprisingly 160 minutes – ends with a dying Gigli shot by Christopher Walken’s cop (revealed as working for Pacino’s mob boss). Brest was so destroyed by the experience and reception that he hasn’t made a film since (rather like Stephen Norrington on the same year’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). I’m not sure I have any great desire to see the Brest cut, but if, as is sometimes the case, it turns out to salvage the entire thing, why not? I suspect, however, that like Kingdom of Heaven, the leads’ charisma vacuum is a fundamental problem (I’d much rather see George Armitage’s original cut of The Big Bounce; Armitage has also not directed since).
It’s also singularly notable that the dialogue is abysmal – for which Brest must take the full blame. This was a period, in the decade post-Tarantino and a couple of successful Leonard adaptations, where crime movies were at least expected to attempt sharp or smart dialogue. Was Brest perversely going against the grain? Whatever he was doing, “It’s turkey time. Gobble, gobble” – when Rikki invites Gigli on down for a spot of oral – will be on the film’s tombstone. Gigli is supposed to be a raging moron, so his self-aggrandising nonsense talk is arguably supposed to be nonsense, but it’s still utterly deadly. Pacino’s riff “Do you know that some people do not regard the thumb, technically, to be a finger?” sounds like a wannabe Tarantino riff, technically, but without the spark.
Walken and Pacino are cop and mob boss respectively, and if ever there was a poster for their schtick being tired and worn out, this is it. Both get to gesticulate, shout and run through their overfamiliar tics and quirks. Pacino, at least, in his ponytail mode and clearly no longer giving a shit, is trying something a little different when he isn’t SHOUTING; he sounds like a hyperventilating, Quaaluded Jeff Goldblum. Spurned lesbian lover Missy Crider cuts her wrists with a kitchen knife, which ought to be more exciting than it is (scuttlebutt has it that she turns out to be the hitwoman in the Brest cut, while Ricki has been pretending to be an enforcer. Go figure).
Does Gigli deserve to be ranked as one of the worst movies ever? Not a chance. It isn’t even the worst movie of 2003 (step forward, Armed and Dangerous). Two other movies Batfleck made that year can arguably vie for being equally bad (Daredevil and Paycheck), and he would make an even worse one the following year (Surviving Christmas). Somehow, he “rehabilitated” himself by directing a few flicks that didn’t involve him killing his lesbian wife. But somehow, he also managed to convince himself he had chops as a bona-fide movie star, hence donning the cowl. I don’t think he’s much cop at either, to be honest. I was going to suggest his directorial stints are at least serviceable, but then I remembered I’d avoided Live By Night. Yeah, Ben sucks so badly, he’s even decided to make an Adrian Lyne erotic thriller.
*Addendum 13/09/22: At this point, it seems they’re married. Or rather, their doubles are married.