Thursday, September 22, 2016

Shock claim: Gigli not so bad!

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2003)

According to the Toronto Star, only 2% of critics gave Gigli a positive review. So I should sew up my contrarian credentials for years ahead here, because I liked the movie. For sure, it isn’t an overall success, and there’s a pervasive sense of unease about it. But it has a crazy, endearing ambition. And a willfully perverse streak that I think deserves modest affection.

Martin Brest

As the world now knows, this is the movie that brought Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez together, playing two would-be assassins paired on a job, going from bickering to falling in love – even though she claims to be a lesbian! The world only knows this, of course, from the publicity overdrive; no one’s actually seen the film. It was a huge flop – I went on the fourth day of release, and there were seven other people in the theater. So much for the public’s supposed fascination with Affleck and Lopez.

More interesting to me was the film’s director Martin Brest. Brest’s last five films, in order, are Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run, Scent of a Woman, Meet Joe Black and Gigli – a striking journey from king of the mainstream to commercial wilderness. Scent of a Woman won the Oscar for Pacino, but Brest’s clear artistic peak came with Midnight Run. It’s clearly a chase picture, but possessing an almost spooky composure and unity of vision. The De Niro-Charles Grodin partnership in that movie is one of my all time favourites – a fascinating duel in competing styles, that’s ultimately remarkably complex and even moving.

Gigli, which is the first film Brest wrote for himself since his debut Going in Style, seems like an attempt to recreate the ambiance of Midnight Run in a different genre. It’s a romantic comedy, blended with a fractured meditation on the nature of sexual attraction. Affleck plays Gigli, a not particularly proficient tough guy who’s hiding a mentally challenged kidnap victim. Not trusting him to do the job, his boss puts another professional on the case – enter Lopez. The majority of the film takes place in Affleck’s drab apartment, which occasionally gives the movie the look of a cheaply shot stage adaptation. A stream of one-scene cameos increases the theatricality – Christopher Walken as a cop investigating the disappearance, Lainie Kazan as Affleck’s mother, Missy Crider as Lopez’ distraught lesbian lover, Pacino as a crime lord.

Gobble Gobble

The title, which again is the surname of Affleck’s character, serves as a metaphor for the film – it looks as though it should evoke Leslie Caron, is apparently meant to rhyme with “really,” but generally gets mispronounced as the more earthy-sounding “jiggly.” Which is one of the more minor examples of how Gigli meshes a romantic sensibility with a gratuitous coarseness. By coarseness I don’t just mean familiar swearwords, but such barnyard oddities as Affleck telling her early on that “I’m the bull, you’re the cow,” and Lopez initiating sex with the matchless line: “It’s turkey time…gobble gobble.” There’s a quality to this that seems to go beyond mere tastelessness, as though the movie were grasping at something elemental. At the same time, of course, it casts two beautiful people in the roles – and Lopez in particular is made to look as lovely as I’ve ever seen her. The conflict between these two strands is at the heart of the film’s “badness,” but I think it’s rather interesting if you think about it as an aesthetic construct.

As the relationship heats up, Affleck and Lopez have long monologues about the glories of the male and female genitalia respectively. Again, there’s something wantonly na├»ve about this, as though such subjects had never been discussed by anyone before. Lopez’ apparent lesbianism (which many viewers would probably read as a lie to keep Affleck at bay, until Crider suddenly turns up) is another source of fundamental sexual confusion. The relative claustrophobia of the apartment setting and the absence of a sense of the outside world (the cameos by Walken et al suggest it’s merely insane out there) occasionally cause the movie to resemble a weird behavioral laboratory.

Gigli’s most problematic element is the mentally challenged Brian, who communicates a considerable amount of sexual frustration (mainly expressed through an identification with Baywatch) while suffering through much abrasiveness and name-calling. I think Brest was trying to do the kind of thing the Farrelly brothers do with disabled actors – ennoble them by refusing to spare them. In Gigli it seems one-sided and plainly mean-spirited. And yet, the character is yet another strand in the sexually neurotic web I mentioned, like a painful embodiment of something from the other characters’ subconscious.

The ending, where Brian finds his version of Baywatch and (not really giving anything away here) Affleck and Lopez take off together is only partly a conventional wrap-up – even by the standards of romantic comedies, the permanence of the happy ending is highly in doubt. To me this confirms the extreme uncertainty and sense of conditionality that pervades the movie. So am I on to something here that others have missed, or is the above a colossal exercise in pseudo-intellectualism? Probably somewhere in between. Maybe I’m trying too hard to see merit in the film, but it’s hard to feel too guilty about that, given how others clambered over themselves to heap scorn on it.

Masked and Anonymous

Perhaps the second-most reviled movie of the year is Masked and Anonymous, a vastly confused, rambling odyssey which I take to be an attempt to find a fictional expression for Bob Dylan’s by now vastly allusive, complex persona. The movie (apparently co-written by Dylan under a pseudonym) is certainly a vanity project, a full cataloguing of which would probably demand intimate familiarity with the Dylan oeuvre – not something I can claim (although I’m enough of a fan to own Slow Train Coming, and even to listen to it once in a while).

Nevertheless, if I hadn’t used up all the space on Gigli, I could go on at some length about how the people in the movie (played by an all-star cast including Jeff Bridges – much more interesting here than in Seabiscuit – John Goodman, Penelope Cruz, Ed Harris (in blackface!), Jessica Lange, Mickey Rourke and the great Bruce Dern) represent this and that and how the basic premise and structure connote that or the other. Maybe it’d all be worth crap, I don’t know. But in summary, the film seems to me pretty close to what a Bob Dylan movie would have to be at this point, which is obviously vastly different from what that would have meant in say 1965. That’s probably all the information you need on that one. I will say though that Masked and Anonymous, for all its points of interest, is no Gigli.

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