Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Take Two: Gigli

by Patrick Bromley
People can't talk about Gigli without being assholes. It has become a cheap, easy punchline, used mostly by people who have never seen the movie. Not that people really need to see it.

Ben Affleck is a hot topic of conversation these days, and not because he has had perhaps the most incredible career comeback of the last 10 years. Sure, he went from public joke to Oscar-winning director within a decade, but cast the guy once as Batman and all of a sudden the internet decides it's 2003 again and Affleck is a piece of shit unworthy of dressing up in a costume and acting opposite master thespian Henry Cavill. Every whining fanboy who's beating his hands bloody against his computer screen over the casting of two-time Oscar winner Ben Affleck filling the same bat-shoes as the guy from Gung Ho, the guy from The Real McCoy, the guy from Return of the Killer Tomatoes and the guy from Newsies mentions two movies in his or her small-minded bitching: Daredevil and Gigli. Ok, Daredevil, fair point. Costume, superhero, check. But how many of them do you think have seen Gigli?

The 2003 movie is the one that cemented Affleck's status as a disaster -- the nail in his career coffin, perhaps the most recognizable, notorious flop since Ishtar in 1987. Nowadays, though, Ishtar has been reassessed as an underrated comedy perhaps ahead of its time. The movie has finally earned critical respect. I have a hard time believing that Gigli will ever enjoy a similar fate.

I am not, by nature, a contrarian. But my wife and I did see Gigli the day it opened. Then we bought it on DVD the day it came out, because we felt like someone should. So I have a fairly long history with the movie. I just hope that qualifies me to talk about it. I want to be qualified. You know, qualified enough to talk about Gigli.
Affleck stars as the titular Larry Gigli (pronounced "Jee-lee"), a low-level thug working for a gangster in Los Angeles. His boss asks him to kidnap the mentally challenged younger brother (Justin Bartha) of a federal prosecutor, but doesn't trust him to get the job done right on his own. So he brings in a partner for Gigli -- a beautiful lesbian named Ricki (Jennifer Lopez). The three of them hang out, deliver quirky monologues, are interrupted by Ricki's girlfriend trying to commit suicide, get visited by Christopher Walken playing a cop, discuss the differences in male and female anatomy, do yoga, listen to Brian ask to go to "the Baywatch," get visited by Al Pacino playing a gangster, make phone calls on flashlights and maybe even fall in love. Well, just Gigli and Ricki. No one falls in love with mentally challenged Brian. He just teaches them HOW to love.

I could go on and on talking about the bad scenes in the movie. Gigli has to go give his mother, a stereotype played in ALL CAPS by Lanie Kazan, a shot of insulin in the ass. And I guess that's funny, because it's his mom's ass. And she wears a thong. And talks about having sex with women. And immediately (and correctly) guesses that Ricki has slept with men before, because that's a thing and because it supposedly makes it more palatable when she winds up in bed with Gigli later on. There is another scene in which Ricki's girlfriend shows up at the apartment completely distraught over their breakup and eventually tries to kill herself. It's violent and terrible and doesn't belong in the same movie in which characters get a grown man to sleep by reading the ingredients on food packages.

There is such an odd mix of tones and genres in Gigli that never come together in a satisfying way, but which result in a movie that, on its face, looks and feels like dozens of other movies while actually resembling nothing else I can think of. It has the attractive leads and gorgeous, slick cinematography of every romantic comedy of the 2000s. It has leather jackets and wiseguys and guns, giving a post-Sopranos vibe of Jersey gangsters doing violent things, but a lot of it is played for laughs -- it's a joke when Affleck puts a guy in a clothes dryer; less so when people are shot in the head later on. It has the sexual politics of a Rock Hudson/Doris Day movie, only filtered through the sensibilities of a 14-year old boy (in which the hot lesbian still wants to fuck a man, because of COURSE she does). It has a view of mental retardation shared by...well, pretty much every other movie, from Rain Man to Forrest Gump to I Am Sam. Bartha's character suffers from a condition that has afflicted so many Hollywood actors playing characters with cognitive disabilities. He's Adorably Challenged.

And THAT is where Gigli hits the wall. I can forgive Affleck being out of his depth as the title character (though he can be very good in the right role, Affleck is mostly awful in this one). I can forgive the general lack of chemistry between him and girlfriend Jennifer Lopez (who has maybe never looked better on film). I can forgive the self-conscious dialogue and uneasy mix of genres. What I can't forgive is the Brian character. The problem is not that it's one of the most offensively tone-deaf portrayals of cognitive disability I can recall. The problem is that the character is played by Justin Bartha, an actor who manages to seem smug even when he's going Full Retard.
Brian is a disaster of a character -- the movie's single biggest miscalculation from which it  never recovers. Poorly conceived and poorly acted, every scene with Brian gives the distinct impression that no one involved with the production knew what the fuck they were doing. Would the movie have been any worse off making Bartha a character with no disability? Couldn't he just be lazy or stupid or something? What would that have changed, really? He could still be obsessed with Baywatch and view it as a metaphor for a better life. He just wouldn't have to call the beach "the Baywatch." See? Adorably Challenged. Would audiences have complained that, without a cognitive disability, Brian might have just tried to escape or understood that he was being kidnapped? Not if Affleck lied and deceived him, which is WHAT HE DOES ANYWAY. The movie wouldn't really be any different, except that it would be 10 times less insufferable. Watching Brian score "laughs" with all of his wacky retarded behavior (like singing every word to Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back") is everything that's wrong with Hollywood's portrayal of cognitive disability. Movies want to treat these people like cute puppies, not as human beings.

The movie never stood a chance. Not ever. People were ready to hate it because they hated the very public real-life relationship between Affleck and Lopez (who didn't help matters by shoving their pink diamond-encrusted love in our faces in music videos). More than that, though, PEOPLE COULD NOT SAY THE TITLE. "Giggly?" "Jiggly?" Eventually, it became so obnoxious that everyone would deliberately say the name wrong just to prove they were ignorant and couldn't bother to actually learn it (these are the same assholes who still mispronounce M. Night Shyamalan's name 14 years after The Sixth Sense made him a PHENOMENON). I know Brest is a guy who typically gets final cut on his movies, but someone at Revolution Studios, the company that backed Gigli, should have at least stepped in and asked him to change the name. After all, look how well it worked for Ishtar. And yet, a decade removed from its release (and subsequent failure), that title is just another of the film's eccentricities. It couldn't be called anything else. The fact that Martin Brest thought that a movie called Gigli could be a box office hit is kind of charming.
Gigli is a victim of Brest's own hubris. It cost waaaay too much for a movie about three people talking (over $75 million; it grossed just over $7 million). The dialogue -- which, to its credit, certainly has its own rhythm and stylization -- is self-conscious and overwritten. Worse, it's the kind of bad dialogue you know that Brest was proud of when he came up with it. Much as he may have thought women across America were going to start saying "Gobble gobble" when requesting oral sex after seeing Gigli, it wound up being one of the worst lines in a movie filled with bad lines. The problem is compounded by the fact that many of those bad lines are stacked one on top of the other in terrible speeches. The characters in Gigli don't have dialogue so much as they deliver monologues to one another. On the one hand, it gets to be tiresome and annoying -- more self-indulgence in a movie filled with self-indulgence. On the other, the speech patterns help make Gigli into its own thing. More bad movies should at least be their own thing.

The film currently sits on IMDb's list of the "Bottom 100" movies ever made. It won all of the major awards at those dumb Razzies and was named the Worst Comedy of the last 25 years by that voting body. That's just stupid. Again, let's keep some perspective; Gigli is deeply, DEEPLY flawed, but calling the WORST comedy in a quarter century is a completely lazy decision, made my people who strive to become a piece of trivia to which mass audiences can guess the answer. It's bad movie shorthand, and an organization that's DEVOTED to bad movies ought to hold itself to a higher standard.

So hard did Gigli shit the box office that the Weinsteins had Jennifer Lopez cut almost entirely out of Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl, in which she also co-starred with Affleck. For this, she should probably thank Gigli.

Gigli is a bad movie, but not a terrible one. It is, at worst, filled with many wrongheaded ideas and uneven performances. At best, it is eccentric. Not enough Hollywood movies are eccentric, so let's be thankful that some filmmakers are willing to take chances.

Not that this particular bout of chance-taking paid off for Martin Brest, who, between the one-two punch of Meet Joe Black and this movie, has languished in movie jail since 2003. Writer/directors like Brest are rare. Like James L. Brooks, Brest only made a movie every couple of years and his voice was all over his work. Though his track record is spotty -- Gigli and Scent of a Woman belong in the "failure" pile, while Beverly Hills Cop and Midnight Run (still his best movie) are unqualified successes. I'd include Meet Joe Black in the success column (not unqualified), but I am alone on that particular limb. But Hollywood is a dick, and so Brest is in movie jail and we don't get any more Martin Brest movies. I'm not suggesting that any filmmaker should get an unlimited number of box office failures -- it is, after all, a business -- but I'm so much more interested in an eccentric Martin Brest movie that swings and misses than I am in slick, competent, forgettable fodder that crowds the multiplex most weekends.

I am not interested in convincing you that Gigli works. It does not. I just want to people to be more thoughtful in their discourse when it comes to movies. Being mad that Ben Affleck has been cast as Batman because he was in Gigli makes you sound like a dummy. Don't have an opinion on Gigli until you have seen it. Don't have an opinion on Affleck as Batman until you have seen it. Movie fandom has enough of that guy/girl. Don't be another one.

Gobble gobble.


  1. Thanks to Netflix I finally watched "Gigli" a couple of weeks ago and it was actually relatively enjoyable because of how bad it was. What I would call "fun bad." The remarkable thing bout it is that every single part of the movie is bad. I could start naming things that make up a movie, but I think you understand what I mean. Just consistently and unrelentingly bad. I was surprised to find that it was just as bad as I could have imagined.

    I would also say that it was written more from the perspective of a 60 year old man born in the 1940s than a 14 year old. It's a 60 year old guy thinking "lesbians. what's that all about?" then putting a lesbian in a movie and having the characters talk about lesbians and thinking that's enough to be provocative and interesting. It's about as shallow as something can be.

    So I thought "Gigli" was even worse than I could have imagined and never missed an opportunity to be bad. Surprisingly enjoyable.

  2. I love this - you do a great job drawing the distinction between a movie that is truly THE WORST, and a movie that merely fails at being good.

    You and the others talk and write often on the site about "Interesting Failures." Like you, I'd rather watch a slew of Interesting Failures that even one more Soulless Success - a movie that aims for the lowest standards of craft, the most cynical view of humanity, and the basest professional intent... and SUCCEEDS.

    An IF might fail to please me... but an SS hates me. Big difference.

    1. Interesting/Ambitious Failures vs Soulless Successes. Love it.

  3. This may be my favorite feature on the site to date. I like this even better than my own column on the Iran-Contra conflict.

    Also, I really like Jersey Girl. I think it's better than most of Kevin Smith's other movies.

    Three cheers for celebrating flawed-but-interesting movies!

  4. I've probably seen it four times. Definitely an interesting failure. If it were a French or Italian film, it would've been praised as a brilliant farce. And it actually DID have another title at one point - Tough Love. Entertainment Weekly even had a summer movie preview issue with it listed under it. Brest and the cast supposedly hated it and bitched until I was changed back.

    1. As bad as the title is, they were right -- Tough Love is way worse. It's generic, and for all its faults, Gigli is far from generic.

  5. Is there part of the labeling of something as "the worst" that needs to be compared to the expectation or aim of the movie?
    As in, if a movie studio funds a production $150 mil, the top actors go in trying to give it their all, and an accomplished director attempts to execute his specific vision with passion.....but it Fails, then would that be considered "Worse" than a small indi/student movie where the end product is as close to objectively similar to the first example as possible?

    1. I think we all do it, whether or not it's fair. We judge the $150m movie more harshly because expect better from big studio movies -- they have seemingly unlimited resources. If I can tell that everyone's really trying, I usually give the movie a pass. Like @janbottig, I'm way harder on the soulless ones.

  6. I'll join you on that "Meet Joe Black" limb, but I hope nobody brought a penknife.

  7. "Gigli" is the worst product of human provenance since the greenhouse effect started getting out of hand.