With When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.
When Gigli debuted on Starz a few months after its theatrical release, the promos were all quotes about how terrible the movie was. “If we promoted it like a good film, our credibility would be shot,” Starz Encore’s publicity head Steve Belgard explained. It’s a rare feat when a movie not only crashes with critics and loses $70 million at the box office but also turns the public against a celebrity relationship and singlehandedly kills an Oscar-nominated director’s career. Like Ishtar before it, Gigli almost immediately became a go-to punchline for the worst of what cinema has to offer. And as with Ishtar, a lot of people who’ve laughed at Gigli have probably never actually seen Gigli.
In fact, I had never seen Gigli until the recent hubbub over Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez getting back together inspired me to finally address this long-standing blindspot. I thought for sure the rom-com loving contrarian in me would find something to enjoy. “It can’t really be that bad,” I thought to myself. Oh, how naïve I was. It turns out Gigli really can be that bad, although the full weight of the movie’s insanity didn’t hit me until a few minutes after it ended. Gigli is so aggressively bizarre that it sort of kept me in a rapt spell, eager to see what further descent into weirdness could possibly come next. It was only after it reached its jarringly sentimental conclusion that I could let out the belly laugh I didn’t even realize I’d been holding in.
The premise is coherent enough. Affleck is Larry Gigli, a low-level would-be gangster with a desperate need to assert his masculinity. Lopez is Ricki, a no-nonsense “independent contractor” with an easy confidence and some decidedly 2003-era low rise jeans. They’re paired up to kidnap Brian (Justin Bartha), the intellectually disabled younger brother of a federal prosecutor. Larry and Ricki realize they’re getting in way over their heads, and have to dodge a suspicious detective and a pissed-off mob boss to keep Brian out of harm’s warm. Gigli might not have a particularly great set-up (and pretty much everything about the depiction of Brian’s disability falls into the “oh no” category), but at least it has as a workable premise: Pull an unlikely trio into a crime caper and watch the sparks fly. It’s Tarantino Lite by way of Out Of Sight with a touch of Rain Man.
Yet right from the opening title card, the painfully maudlin score hints that writer/director Martin Brest isn’t fully in control of Gigli’s tone. Despite its high-stakes crime premise, Gigli is a talky, narratively inert film that mostly unfolds in Larry’s sparse L.A. apartment. Brest’s underwritten characters engage in a lot of overwritten pontificating, which often makes the movie feel like “the weirdest, shittiest Off-Off-Broadway play you’ve ever seen,” as one GQ retrospective put it. And for those who only know Gigli from its marketing, it may come as a surprise to learn that it’s part of the “Ben Affleck dates lesbians” cinematic universe. The trailers desperately tried to hide the fact that Lopez’s character is gay in order to sell the movie as a more conventional romantic comedy.
The deranged quality of Gigli slowly amps up over its two-hour runtime. While the most infamous line is Lopez’s seductive bedroom invitation, “It’s turkey time. Gobble, gobble,” there are any number of moments that are equally deserving of the honor, like when Brian innocently explains, “When my penis sneezes, I say, ‘God bless you.’” Christopher Walken pops in for a one-scene appearance where he threatens Larry by way of a Marie Callender pie à la mode. Ricki extols the supremacy of the vagina over the penis while doing sexy yoga. A character we’ve never heard mentioned before shows up at the apartment, slits her wrists in an ostensibly comedic scene, and then disappears from the movie entirely. Brian sings “Baby Got Back” while Larry cuts off a corpse’s thumb with a plastic knife.
While all of that could maybe work in a dark crime comedy, it definitely sits strangely in a movie that ends with a gospel choir underscoring the moment Brian finally makes it to “the Baywatch”— his abstract yearning for a place where he can lead a fulfilling adult life. (“I think that’s where the sex is,” he tells Larry and Ricki earlier.) Gigli’s finale features Brian sheepishly crashing a beach-themed music video shoot and tentatively flirting with a hot Australian woman, while a reformed Larry looks on like a proud papa bear before riding off into the sunset with J.Lo. The wholehearted sentimentally of these final few minutes is actually far more jarring than the scene where Al Pacino randomly shoots someone in the head and the camera zooms in on a tank of tropical fish eating the bloody brain matter. If there was ever a film that needed something more complicated than a simple “happily ever after” rom-com ending, it’s this one.
And originally it had one. Maybe the most important thing to know about Gigli is that it was meant to end with its protagonist slowly bleeding to death on a beach. Though Gigli has a strange comedic energy to it—much of which the actors brought out of the material during Brest’s lengthy “try anything” shooting process—the story always had a core of darkness that Brest intended to return to. But when test audiences responded negatively to the half-funny, half-grim cut, Revolution Studios head Joe Roth tried to wrest control from Brest in order to transform the movie into something more commercial. Lopez and Affleck (who met during filming) were at the peak of celebrity couple fame, and given that their salaries were about $12 million each, Roth was desperate to ensure a return on his studio’s investment. Though Brest technically had final cut privileges, he was pressured to recut and reshoot large swathes of the movie into a lighter romantic comedy, which at least somewhat explains the jarringly discordant final product.
Film critic Michael Dequina published a pretty detailed description of the original cut of Gigli where Larry died, which also wove together other dangling plot threads, like Walken’s role and Ricki’s suicidal ex-girlfriend. That version eventually revealed that Ricki was merely posing as a contractor, which is definitely something you can feel the final film leading up to but never following through on. And while Dequina notes that the darker ending had its own tonal problems thanks to the jokier first half, he claims it at least felt more narratively cohesive and emotionally honest. Given that it’s hard to imagine a film being received worse than Gigli was, it does make you wonder how the original cut might’ve fared in comparison.
On the other hand, it takes something beyond just the quality of a film to turn it into a laughing stock of Gigli-level proportions. Bad buzz and simmering public frustration at the ever-present nature of “Bennifer” created the perfect conditions for an epic flop. And I’m not sure a different ending could’ve prevented that. In Gigli’s production notes, Affleck gushed, “It was exciting to try to do something where you didn’t have to follow all the normal guidelines of movie behavior.” But Lopez and Affleck were too famous in a mainstream way for audiences to accept their jaunt into heightened verbal artifice. (Gigli came on the heels of Lopez’s charming performance in Maid In Manhattan and Affleck’s shaky turn in Daredevil.) While the final version of Gigli is ostensibly aiming for the sort of crime-comedy-romance tone that Shane Black would later nail in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it mostly winds up feeling like several not-all-that-great concepts inelegantly smashed together.
And, to be fair, the most interesting of those probably is the Ricki/Larry relationship, even if it’s not particularly well served by the tacked-on rom-com ending. Their affair is part of the film’s larger thesis that Larry’s machismo is a prison that’s suffocating his naturally feminine spirit. As Gigli sees it, what Larry really needs in life is to be kind to his friends and dominated in the bedroom. And Ricki, with her confident swagger and empathetic spirit, is just the woman to teach him that lesson. There’s an oddball specificity to Gigli’s exploration of Larry’s gendered transformation. The most genuinely charming moment in the whole film is a scene where a postcoital Larry happily admits that he’s meant to be the cow, not the bull, in his romantic relationships, and then moos.
Gigli is such a ridiculous product of its era that there’s a certain weird charm to watching it today—especially since it didn’t turn out to be the career-killer it once seemed destined to be for all of its stars. Lopez and Affleck are both at a much higher peak of critical artistic respect than they were in the early aughts. It’s actually kind of remarkable that Justin Bartha has managed to have as much of a career as he has after a debut performance playing the most offensive character in one of the most hated movies of all time. Brest is the biggest victim of Gigli’s critical savaging, as he hasn’t worked on another film since. But given that he also has critical and commercial hits like Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run, and Scent Of A Woman to his name, it seems like at least part of his retirement is probably by choice. (Playboy published a fascinating 2014 article that tried and failed to solve the mystery of his post-Gigli career disappearance.)
Brest certainly still has a champion in Affleck, who thanked him in his Best Picture Oscar acceptance speech for Argo. In fact, Affleck has even gone so far as to say that Gigli is where he learned to direct, thanks to Brest’s gift for making actors feel safe and supported on set. As Walken put it, “With Marty, every night I went home thinking ‘I don’t know whether it was good, but I certainly did get a chance to do my best.’” In retrospect, clearly no one involved with Gigli was actually doing their best work, although the faults of the film don’t fall on the shoulders of any one person. It’s not just the acting or the writing or the chemistry or the reshoots or the intense public scrutiny. A perfect storm of worst-case scenarios all piling on top of each other to create this addition to the bad rom-com canon. Gigli is a singularity of terribleness, which is a feat in its own right. It couldn’t be replicated even if someone tried.
Next time: Legally Blonde turns 20. What, like it’s hard?