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Gigli (Martin Brest, 2003)
First a confession: Jennifer Lopez’s screen presence has an effect on me that makes me forgive stuff in movies that I might otherwise find repugnant. She’s a wondrously compassionate screen presence and is consistently better than she’s given credit for by the masses. To my surprise, I don’t think Lopez’s performance is the best thing about Gigli. Despite the hype, it’s genuinely a good movie, with numerous virtues. Now an accusation: a vast majority of lazy critics have almost uniformly ignored the obvious strengths of Gigli in an attempt to outdo each other in slinging spite. Whereas a good film critic should be part of the solution to our tabloid culture and should encourage deeper thinking in their audiences, the majority of film critics seem content to lower themselves to name-calling and gossip in their reviews of this film (most of them missing the fact that Halle Berry was originally cast in the Lopez role in their attempts to present it as a vanity project). Obviously, not all critics who dislike Gigli are fools, and there are a smattering of valid complaints out there, but by and large the critical community has immolated the most challenging and provocative film that has come out of Hollywood this year.
Far from the cute romantic comedy or mob farce that one might expect, Gigil is a laid back, character-driven movie. The plot picks up as low-level thug Larry Gigli (Ben Affleck) kidnaps the mentally handicapped Brian (newcomer Justin Bartha), in an attempt to force a federal prosecutor to drop charges against a mob boss. Before long, “Ricki” (Jennifer Lopez), a second agent of the mobster, shows up at Larry’s apartment, and the two begin an adversarial relationship that leads to Larry’s personal growth. Obviously, those who find stars Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez intolerable will have difficulties embracing the film, but I genuinely liked these characters. Many of the pleasures that the film offers are found in the dynamics of watching the actors play off one another as they sit around chatting. As an R-rated, mature, and poignant comedy that displays an almost European sensibility at times, the film Gigli most reminds me of is Rain Man. It’s shocking that material that’s similar to a Best Picture winner from fifteen years ago could be considered unfathomable subject matter in this day and age. Rarely is a Hollywood movie, especially one released during the summer, so focused on dialogue and so willing to present actual ideas. For those on the fence regarding my endorsement of Gigli’s quality, remember that the excellent, intelligent Out of Sight (the last talky summer movie that Lopez starred in) was also a commercial disappointment.
Three times during Gigli, different characters utter the line, “You never know.” That simple platitude achieves something resembling resignation to the sexual flip-flopping that comes to be the norm in the film’s worldview. The adult frankness that is displayed throughout is refreshing. Since most Hollywood movies don’t even acknowledge that the penis or vagina exist, it’s surprising to hear characters relating to one another maturely about sex here. Gigli has a series of superbly scripted and beautifully acted conversations that playfully pit the lesbian Ricki against the chauvinistic Larry, and the audacity that Brest demonstrates in tackling his subject matter while remaining in the mode of popular storytelling is admirable (Lopez’s pose – and the outline in her yoga outfit - as she utters the nearly taboo words “my pussy” are priceless). This is a film where sex is just sex and sexual preference is just a preference. Perhaps because it’s so willing to challenge mainstream depictions of sexuality (emasculating Larry as it does), audiences have largely rejected it.
It’s in this liberated environment that Larry moves beyond the macho posturing that initially defines him toward something a bit more sensitive. The film’s central thesis examines the way that men posture as much for each other as they do for the women that they hope to attract and has the sense to call such behavior immature. Although Gigli repeatedly insists that his name rhymes with “really”, there’s not much about him that’s “really” apparent. The mob culture that Larry attempts to blend into and the hip-hop culture that we see Brian embracing share a common bond in that both of them value the aggressive boast of virility above all else. When Brian makes an offhand comment calling Larry “old school”, he’s complimenting him, but also subtly commenting on how outmoded his “gangster” behavior is. Gigli is a smart movie, and it’s bright enough to realize that there are only a few degrees of separation between Brian’s naïve euphemism for his ejaculation (“She makes my penis sneeze.”) and Larry’s description of his own penis as a bull’s horn. Those who complain that Gigli’s mob plot isn’t integrated well enough with its romance are not only not looking closely enough at how Brest uses it to comment on gender roles, but are also forgetting how clumsily a mob plot was tacked onto Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot, which is generally considered the defining comedy of gender politics by the same masses that have no apparent use for Gigli.
The meaty, unresolved arc that Larry’s character follows provides the best material in Gigli, and helps the movie attain genuine poignancy. Brest isn’t afraid to examine the loneliness that Larry struggles with, even if he only makes the depth of his depression apparent as Gigli grows increasingly stressed out by his job. It becomes apparent that the gangsters that Larry associates with expect him to behave as he does, and since he is an admittedly lonely man, he likely feels that no other group is willing to accept him and adapts accordingly. The gradual emasculation that he undergoes is gratifying instead of tragic because it underlines the fact that the “cool” gangster that so many movies try to sell us is a myth. As the movie progresses, Larry backpedals from his earlier sexual boasts (“Gobble, gobble” Ricki confidently commands, and he withers), finds himself warming up to others, and is revealed as a decent man underneath his brash exterior. Ricki repeatedly states that she suspects Larry is gay and a quip that she makes about how good he’d look in mascara suggests that she’d be at least as likely to try to help him explore his feminine side as sleep with him again. Perhaps the most stinging demonstration of the conflict that exists between the man Larry is and the man he might become occurs during a scene in which he’s sitting in a car, confessing his misery with his current lot in life to Ricki. The moment that his boss pulls up in another car, Larry stops being forthright and resumes his macho act. It’s a subtle moment, but one that shows the audience that his character won’t change overnight and prepares us for an unresolved ending. Though subtle, graceful storytelling is the last thing you’d expect from the director of the crass, manipulative Scent of a Woman, Gigli doesn’t overstate itself (obviously, since so many critics seemingly missed its point) in its quest to thoughtfully observe its titular character.
For a film focused so intensely on the interactions between characters, it’s key that the performances be up to par. Luckily, each member of Gigli’s cast distinguishes themselves while helping to drive home the film’s central concerns. Very consistently, Ben Affleck is a better supporting actor than a lead, with the notable exception of Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy, which although inferior, perhaps not coincidentally is the film in his body of work that Gigli most resembles. He’s by turns short-tempered, bullish, charming and vulnerable here, exhibiting more range than ever before. If he and Lopez are not quite convincing as a gangster’s thugs, perhaps it’s important to understand their reluctance in those roles. The film is paced well, with definite chemistry and much tension (both sexual and comic) in the central relationship. Oftentimes, Lopez doesn’t respond when Gigli talks, and allows him to puff himself up until he feels he’s established his dominance. The actress clearly realizes that often the coolest reply to a boast is to make no reply, and the control that she exhibits throughout her performance makes it one of her best. Ricki doesn’t change nearly as much as Larry during the film, but she reveals layers of compassion that disarm the initial impression that she’s a sex object and helps to alleviate the feeling that she’s a convenient device for Brest’s screenplay. As the retarded Brian, Bartha has a challenging role, and acquits himself well. Essentially he channels Hoffman’s Rain Man performance, but is funnier and has the added benefit of working in a script that doesn’t use his character as a blatant, lesson-spouting mouthpiece for the screenwriter. Though Larry’s character grows nicer to Brian as he loses his edge, at no point is Brian presented as a source of “simple is true” wisdom. In a superb, one-scene cameo, Christopher Walken plays a Federal Investigator and manages to adds suspense to the rest of the film. With little more than his oddball presence, he leaves a lingering impression that the kidnappers might get caught.
Even from a technical standpoint, Gigli presents little to complain about. There are numerous touches that make the world it inhabits feel lived in. Larry’s thug boss, transposed to Southern California, much to his annoyance, sets up shop in an Italian restaurant… that happens to be a sidewalk bistro. Cinematographer Robert Elswit (Punch-Drunk Love) gives the film a sunny look that largely eschews the travelogue shots that one would expect in a film set in Los Angeles. The generally workmanlike Brest shows unusual visual taste in his compositions. Between the blank, flat beige walls of Gigli’s apartment (which reflect upon their owner) and the almost retro star lighting that he shines on his leads, the film has an unforced, professional look that enables one to focus on characterization without being annoyed by wasted screen real estate and overly flashy camera trickery. It’s also refreshing that Brest doesn’t feel the need to have music on the soundtrack at all times. This is likely the quietest studio release this year (the taste used in scoring the film makes the moments when Brest accompanies his close-ups of Brian with a swelling score all the more unfortunate). Though Gigli is unlikely to be rediscovered by future generations as a lost masterpiece, I can’t help but imagine it will be evaluated more kindly by those who aren’t caught up in the present day tabloid zeitgeist. Because of its humble proficiency, seriousness of intent and sexual adventurousness, it’s become the unfortunate pariah of a film culture that expects Hollywood to turn out only gee-whiz showiness and superficial plays at emotion. It’s an ambitious film that merits serious consideration, but because of external biases, few seem willing to take it seriously.