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Rewatching Gigli in the age of Bennifer’s triumph

Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck got married, so I revisited their infamous 2003 flop.

A scene from Gigli; Affleck and Lopez sit on a couch together.
Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez met on the set of Gigli, a disaster that still reminds us of how much the movies have changed.
Sony Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The release of the infamous Bennifer train wreck Gigli blipped right by me, a rising college junior, in the doldrums of summer 2003. Since then, thanks to its reputation, it’s existed in my mind only as a shorthand for disaster. I wasn’t in a hurry to verify.

It was the Las Vegas nuptials of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez that finally drove me to it. A primer, in case you need it: Affleck and Lopez met on the set of Gigli in 2002 and became an item. They became engaged before the movie was released the following year, then broke up in January 2004 and moved on.

But last July, in an uneasy pandemic summer, the pair reunited. And though their coupling had provoked a lot of scorn in its early years, now it was an unabashed source of joy for everyone, including them. They finally tied the knot a year later, on July 16, 2022.

So this week, it was time to watch Gigli.

Here is the thing: The movie really isn’t quite as bad as its reputation makes it out to be. As others have noted, the infamy of Bennifer contributed mightily to its reception the first time around. (Metacritic rates it as “overwhelmingly disliked,” at 18/100.) Theaters dropped it like a hot potato; it opened in 2,215 theaters, but dropped by a record-setting 81.9 percent by the second weekend and 97 percent in the third. That means, by its third weekend, it was playing in 73 theaters — a wild bomb for a movie starring not just Affleck and Lopez, who had been on hot streaks, but Christopher Walken and Al Pacino. Al Pacino!

And while a lot of movies from the turn of the millennium feel like they’re from another planet, especially when it comes to misogyny and sexuality, Gigli is from another universe. It’s basically the story of a small-time mobster named Larry Gigli (rhymes with really, played by Affleck) who is hired to kidnap Brian (Justin Bartha), the intellectually disabled younger brother of a district attorney who won’t let a much bigger-time mobster (Pacino) alone. Then another contractor, who introduces herself as Ricki (Lopez), shows up to keep tabs on Larry and an eye on Brian. She and Larry, naturally, end up hooking up.

Except Ricki is into women, a fact she makes very clear to Larry from the beginning, making Gigli one of several movies in which a lesbian’s main hurdle to being with a man is that she hasn’t met Ben Affleck yet. (See also Chasing Amy.) And Brian’s characterization is — well, it’s a lot. Narratively, there’s really no reason that Brian had to be written as having intellectual disabilities, and not, for instance, as a smart-ass 11-year-old. The main point seems to be that it’s funny to laugh at the silly things he says. It’s … not great.

The pair in bed.
Lopez and Affleck in Gigli.
Sony Pictures

But, but, but. While Gigli provides plenty to hate on — its tone is all over the place, its score is baffling, and, well, there’s everything mentioned above — I found myself getting oddly nostalgic, and not for ultra-low-rise jeans. Writer and director Martin Brest is no slouch; among his work is the highly decorated Scent of a Woman, shot a decade before Gigli. Affleck, who is a genuinely good director in his own right, has credited his success to his experience watching Brest direct actors on the Gigli set. In the film’s press notes, the cast praised Brest’s direction, with Lainie Kazan, who plays Larry’s mother, saying that “It’s very rare to be directed in such an open, positive way.”

And notes on the plot of the original cut of the movie, written up by film critic Michael Dequina following an early screening, show that Gigli was once a darker, weirder, and much more coherent movie. Its key difference from what made it to the screen is that Ricki is only pretending to be a killer. Pacino’s and Walken’s characters, reduced to scene-stealing but somewhat baffling cameos, were far more integrated into the story. The appearance of Ricki’s girlfriend — who in the theatrical version shows up and slits her wrists, then never reappears — suddenly gains meaning: She is the real assassin. Asides that Larry and Ricki make to one another start to make more sense. Even their hookup gains a sort of logic. And in the original version, Larry dies at the end.

What happened? It seems that the head of Revolution Studios, Joe Roth, was worried after mixed responses in test screenings that the movie wouldn’t do well, and he’d lose his hefty investment in the movie’s co-stars (Lopez made $12 million, Affleck $12.5 million). So though Brest had final cut on the movie, he was strong-armed into recutting it from a weird, offbeat movie about a gangster who wants out into a romantic comedy.

Gigli does not work at all as a rom-com. But knowing this made me wistful for a time when mid-budget rom-coms were the sort of thing you’d make if you needed to earn back your investment. Only in hindsight do we know that 2003 was near the end of the rom-com’s reign; soon they’d start regularly flopping, and now you’re lucky if you can find a watchable new rom-com on streaming services.

And yet, it’s fun to see how high the genre was flying at the time. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days made over $100 million at the box office, a marker of success by any measure, with Something’s Gotta Give hot on its heels at just over $80 million. Love Actually, Intolerable Cruelty, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and the criminally underrated Down With Love are among the other rom-coms from that year. This was a time when stars were in mid-budget popcorn movies that now go straight to streaming, and we used to go watch comedies, made from original screenplays, at the theater. It was fun to laugh with other people, and you’d feel good when you went home. Now that sort of movie gets squeezed out entirely by massive-budget franchise films that require diagrams and homework assignments to keep straight.

Lopez, Affleck, and Justin Bartha in Gigli.
Gigli isn’t good — at all — but it at least seems like it was trying for something.
Sony Pictures

And then sometimes you’d just discover the movie you’d bought a ticket for was Gigli, and it sucked. Yet even Gigli has its charms. You can feel an independent intelligence — in this case, Brest’s — fighting to get out through the muck and confusion. Bad movies from that era tended, on the whole, to be bad in weird and interesting ways. Like, I don’t know what he was going for here, but you can tell he was going for something. You walk out scratching your head about how it went wrong, but at least it’s clear that this wasn’t really the movie they set out to make.

I thought about this because the week I watched Gigli, I also watched The Gray Man, the new Netflix joint starring Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, and Ana de Armas (who famously dated Affleck for a while, too, though that’s neither here nor there). And it’s bad, but in a deeply boring way. Movies like The Gray Man and the host of other very expensive, very dull films don’t evince some kind of ambition or drive to make a movie, so much as a big chunk of content to send down the tube. (And, in this case, one where the CGI looks truly dreadful.)

What was at least potentially fun about Gigli is the way it tried to play with the character of the gangster. Larry doesn’t have a heart of gold, but he does have ambitions to lead a normal life, and in the original version, he gets what he wanted. He’s learned to be a gangster from watching them on TV. Today’s generic bad movie, though, feels like it was created by an AI that’s been fed all the movies in the world and spat out another variation on one.

All of this should not be taken as an endorsement of Gigli. It’s not even particularly fun to watch, and in our world of unlimited entertainment, who has the time?

But I guess I’m glad I watched it, and I suppose I have Bennifer to thank for the reminder that movies don’t always have to be the way they often trend today. If Affleck is grateful for the experience — it’s where he met his wife, after all — then who am I to judge?

Gigli is available to rent or buy on digital platforms.

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