The Ben and Jen show 

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, one of those isolated brainstorms that now and then sweep through narrow areas of Southern California, specifically, conference rooms in the region of Hollywood. Some inventive person probably suggested a movie constructed around two of the best known young stars in American film, who also happen to be the hottest couple in the gossip columns, the entertainment programs, and the movie magazines. Combine them in a romantic comedy, the discussion no doubt concluded, and the desirable demographic stratum, the young and somewhat innocent (and affluent), will flock to the theaters.

                Like a lot of superficially good ideas, the picture that resulted from that entirely likely meeting, given the uninformative title Gigli, is earning neither big bucks nor rave reviews. Even the presence of that famous couple, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, cannot turn the silly material of the movie into a commercial success, and the usually helpful conspirators in the media have not cooperated with their customary enthusiasm. In fact, in a rare instance of unanimity of opinion, everybody seems to be ganging up on Ben and Jen and the movie.

                Whatever its many defects, chiefly dullness and confusion, the picture demonstrates something of the progress of film tolerance and therefore something of the transformations of both Hollywood and American society. Although Gigli certainly recalls innumerable works of cinema from the past, it also underlines the distance that a form like romantic comedy has traveled over the course of its history.

                Ben Affleck plays the title character, Larry Gigli (rhymes with really, as he helpfully points out), a smalltime kneebreaker who collects money for mobsters --- the picture opens with him stuffing a deadbeat customer into a large clothes dryer he plans to set on the permanent press cycle. His employer, a loathsome creep named Louis (Lenny Venito), orders him to pick up a retarded young man named Brian (Justin Bartha) and keep him in his apartment; Louis plans to use Brian, the younger brother of a federal prosecutor, to persuade the prosecutor to drop his case against a major gangster. A young woman named Ricki (Jennifer Lopez), who calls herself an independent contractor, shows up at Gigli's apartment, also hired by Louis as a sort of insurance, to make sure the job goes as planned.

                That situation, a contemporary version of "meeting cute," pretty much constitutes the basis of the romantic comedy. The writer-director, Martin Brest, also throws in a few other complications, possibly because he believed they were funny, or perhaps merely to flesh out his slender material. As everybody in the audience knows, and in a grand tradition that probably dates all the way back to the Greeks, after some initial hostility, Affleck and Lopez will eventually wind up together. One of the traditional obstacles to true love this time around involves Ricki's sexual orientation; she informs the dopey hood that she is a lesbian, an indication of how much times and film have changed since Rock Hudson and Doris Day bandied words and juvenile sexual innuendo in Pillow Talk.

                Since that ostensibly comic situation apparently provides too little substance for the length of the movie, the writer-director invents a few more complications. He gives a good deal of screen time to Justin Bartha, who plays Brian in a manner much too reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman's performance in Rain Man, hanging his head at an angle, speaking in a rapid monotone, making unusual requests, repeating nonsense phrases over and over. (The performance grows so tiresome that a viewer could be forgiven for chanting, "Rain Man, Rain Man, go away!")

                The picture also allows its principals to deliver a few set speeches for comic effect. In an effort to convert her to heterosexuality, Affleck lectures Lopez on masculine sexual superiority, while she retaliates with an anthropological discussion right out of The Naked Ape on the significance of the mouth and the importance of kissing. Stranger still, the director brings in a couple of major actors, Christopher Walken and Al Pacino, for one showy scene apiece --- Walken does a terrific and typically eccentric interpretation of a detective who elliptically explains the reason for Brian's kidnapping, while Pacino wildly overplays the part of the legally threatened big shot.

                Aside from the lesbian gimmick, the movie also includes material that would never have popped up in a Jimmy Stewart-June Allyson or Rock Hudson-Doris Day flick. The dialogue positively bristles with rich obscenities that dear June or sweet Doris would never have uttered, for example, and the action includes a suicide attempt and a shocking murder: some comedy. The evidence of this season's Alex & Emma notwithstanding, they really aren't making movies like they used to, and as far as Gigli is concerned, that's too bad.

Gigli, starring Ben Affleck, Jennifer Lopez, Justin Bartha, Lenny Venito, Lainie Kazan, Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, Missy Crider; written and directed by Martin Brest. Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.

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