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Chemistry Exam

Hollywood couple fail to elicit on-screen sparks

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The first wave of reviews for Gigli have been so scathing -- perhaps not since Battlefield Earth have the majority of critics so gleefully trashed a single motion picture -- that it almost seems necessary to come to the movie's defense.

Gigli is not the worst movie of all time, as one overzealous blurbmeister for Fox News stated. Nor is it the worst movie of this still-developing decade -- not when you have contenders like Roberto Benigni's grotesque bastardization of Pinocchio or the aforementioned Travolta turkey. And no, it's not merely the worst movie of 2003, either. Heck, it's not even the worst movie of the summer -- I'll watch Gigli again before subjecting myself to a second helping of either Bad Boys II or Hollywood Homicide.

So much for the defense.

Actually, there's something else. Jennifer Lopez has been repeatedly trashed on these pages, not for being a bad actress per se -- unlike Madonna or one-shot Mariah Carey, she can hit her marks and offer the right voice inflections -- but for being such a singularly uninteresting one, monotonously turning practically all of her movie characters into one-note automatons. Yet there were a couple of instances in Gigli -- I don't even recall exactly when, but they're there -- during which Lopez softened up and seemed recognizably human, an actual person beneath that hardened shellac of spoiled celebrity. Not Oscar-worthy, mind you, but possibly something to build (and build... and build) on.

One final "thumbs up": There's a scene in which Lopez's cool mob enforcer Ricki and Ben Affleck's lunk-headed hood Gigli debate whether it's the penis or the vagina that deserves to be considered the pinnacle of sexual perfection. It's impossible to take the sequence seriously because Lopez is writhing all over the floor during the conversation -- ostensibly practicing her yoga moves, but in actuality giving the geek-boy fans a looong look at her curvy figure -- yet because the chat itself is handled in a mature, thoughtful way (no giggly Yankee prudery here), one could easily imagine it placed in the service of a better movie.

OK, now I'm really through. There's really nothing else even remotely nice to say about Gigli, which is about as tough to endure as director Martin Brest's last two films, the repulsive Scent of a Woman and the endless-and-a-day Meet Joe Black. However unfair, the media desire to bash this film is probably understandable, given the incessant J-Lo/Ben-Boytoy coverage we've had to endure over the past year or so. But this movie is rancid on its own terms.

The plot of Gigli (written by Brest) kicks into low gear when Gigli is tapped by mob middle man Louis (Lenny Venito, an actor with the most lifeless eyes this side of a shark) to kidnap the mentally challenged brother (Justin Bartha) of a federal prosecutor who's trying to finger a prominent crime figure. Louis figures that with the kid, Brian, as a hostage, the prosecutor will fold his case; just to insure that nothing goes wrong, Louis brings in a second enforcer, Ricki, to look after both the boy and the often incompetent Gigli.

Gigli initially plays up his brutish tendencies ("In every relationship, there's a bull and a cow," he informs Ricki, "and in this one, I'm the bull!"), but it's not long before he's falling under the spell of Ricki's supreme confidence, superior intellect and bodacious booty. But there's one slight problem regarding his alpha male ambition to tame and conquer this woman: She's a lesbian.

If this sounds familiar -- Affleck cast as a guy who falls for a gay woman and tries to convert her to the heterosexual lifestyle -- that's because we've seen an infinitely better variation on this theme in Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy. Back in the 30s, Greta Garbo was simply plugged as "Garbo the Great" while Boris Karloff was billed as "Karloff the Uncanny"; at this rate, how long before we see movie posters extolling "Affleck the Lesbian-Tamer"?

Anyway, the whole romantic angle of the picture falls dismally flat because Affleck and Lopez have absolutely no chemistry together. Who knows if room temperatures rise when they're carousing off screen -- and who cares? The bottom line is that as a movie couple, they exude as much heat and sexual tension as Ma and Pa Kettle. They both have chemistry, but only with themselves (it's telling that Affleck's most animated sequence in the film is when he's admiring his own physique in the bathroom mirror).

Had Brest merely decided to make his own bargain-basement version of Chasing Amy, Gigli would be bad enough, but the whole plotline involving their mentally challenged charge burrows the movie beneath the basement. Brian is little more than a plot device, and an ill-used one at that: He conveniently stops babbling and fidgeting whenever the script requires either Gigli or Ricki to get cranking on some long-winded monologue. It's only after every i and every t in every speech have been verbally dotted and crossed that Brian is allowed to get back into the action. Newcomer Bartha tries hard in the role, but it's basically just a knockoff of Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man. There's even a running gag involving Australia; perhaps a nod to Hoffman's Qantas obsession in that earlier Oscar winner?

To alleviate the tedium, Christopher Walken turns up for one scene, doing an Al Pacino impersonation. Then Al Pacino pops up in a later sequence, also doing an Al Pacino impersonation. At this point in their careers, I'll take Walken's Pacino over Pacino's Pacino.

Affleck and Lopez actually have one more chance to get it right: Next year, they'll be co-starring in Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl, with Affleck cast as a music promoter who falls for a book editor played by Lopez. Until then, though, they'll have to try to put Gigli behind them. And incidentally, that name isn't pronounced "giggly" or "jiggly." Instead, as Affleck's character informs us on more than one occasion, it rhymes with "really" -- as in "really, really, really bad."

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