[Screen It]

(2003) (Ben Affleck, Jennifer Lopez) (R)

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Drama: Two criminal "contractors" find themselves drawn to each other while holding an autistic young man hostage for their crime figure boss.
Larry Gigli (BEN AFFLECK) is a "contractor" who works for a local criminal, Louis (LENNY VENITO). His latest assignment is to kidnap an autistic young man, Brian (JUSTIN BARTHA), from his group home. That's because Louis' criminal associate, Starkman (AL PACINO), is under investigation by a federal prosecutor whose brother just so happens to be Brian, and Louis figures the hostage situation might make the feds back off.

Thus, Larry convinces Brian to come with him and they head back to his place where they run into Ricki (JENNIFER LOPEZ). She states that Louis has hired her to make sure Larry does his job and soon the two are babysitting Brian who's obsessed with going to the beach to see the stars of "Baywatch."

Since Ricki is so alluring, Larry tries to hit on her, but quickly learns that she's a lesbian. That doesn't deter him, however, from continuing to pursue and trying to convince her to have sex with him. As their repartee proceeds, they eventually grow fond of Brian, thus potentially endangering their employment and lives, as they must then deal with both Louis and Starkman.

OUR TAKE: 2 out of 10
Since so many people are obsessed with celebrities and their personal lives, it's not surprising that when two of them are a couple and appear in a film together, the focus of attention is usually on whether they have comparable onscreen chemistry.

Such is the case with Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck in "Gigli." Reportedly just "friends" when the film was shot, the two became a couple afterwards. Now they're obviously appearing together to promote the picture, no doubt hoping to capitalize on the tabloid-style attraction of their romance.

Unfortunately for them, the film and anyone who sits down to watch it, their chemistry onscreen is the least of their worries and/or problems. That's because this romantic dramedy is ill-conceived, poorly executed (both in front of and behind the camera) and generally bad from start to finish. It's not exactly the second coming of "Ishtar" or "Freddy Got Fingered," but it's far from the quality film I'm assuming those involved probably envisioned.

Writer/director Martin Brest ("Meet Joe Black," "Scent of a Woman") has concocted a film that's half "Rain Man" and half "Chasing Amy," but without the qualities that made the former so good and latter provocatively interesting.

Like Tom Cruise and Valeria Golino in Barry Levinson's film, the duo here is watching over an autistic young man who they've removed from his familiar surroundings. While newcomer Justin Bartha is obviously no Dustin Hoffman, he does a decent job portraying such a character. Unfortunately, the material involving him is several steps down from its predecessor and is often rather mean-spirited. I'm not sure if such moments are intended to be funny (they're not), but such material does nothing to endear the kidnappers to the viewer.

Affleck's is one of those, but he's apparently more concerned with recycling his "I can break her of lesbianism" character from Kevin Smith's unconventional romantic comedy (yes, J-Lo's is playing gay). In fact, there are so many scenes of that that one is half expecting Joey Lauren Adams to show up as Lopez's lover. Missy Crider ("Frailty," "Mulholland Drive") does that instead, in another scene that's questionable in a comedy, no matter how edgy it's trying to be.

Beyond those unflattering and distracting similarities, the film suffers from bouts of bad dialogue, uneven pacing and a number of contrived and/or unbelievable plot developments and character actions that do nothing for the effort beyond removing the viewer from the proceedings.

It doesn't help that Affleck ("Daredevil," "The Sum of All Fears") is rather unconvincing in his role of a criminal "contractor." Despite an early scene involving him, a laundromat dryer and a man in some serious debt, I never once believed his portrayal or the character's credibility. Some late in the game developments suggest he might be operating off a dim bulb (which could have given the film more comedic bite), but they're inconsistent with other moments. While watching the film, I couldn't help thinking of John Travolta's far more convincing turn in "Get Shorty."

Lopez ("Maid in Manhattan," "Enough"), despite being saddled with some contrived character elements (including the entire "lesbian to be conquered" bit), is generally okay, if perhaps a bit too cutesy. Although there's some decent chemistry and passion between her and Affleck's characters, such moments are not as electrically and/or sexually charged as probably intended and/or expected.

The villain played by Lenny Venito ("Men in Black II," "Rounders") is appropriately nasty, but we never learn why and he thus comes off as just a one-note character. I kept wondering why Affleck or Lopez's character didn't just put a bullet in his head and end their misery, but I guess they were too busy getting to know one another.

The likes of Al Pacino ("The Recruit," "Insomnia"), Lainie Kazan ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding," "What's Cooking?") and Christopher Walken ("Kangaroo Jack," "Catch Me If You Can") each appear in separate and elongated cameo scenes. Yet, they don't do much beyond drawing attention away from the film and to their celebrity status or making viewers wonder why they don't reappear later.

Perhaps it's because they read the script and realized the stinker in which they were appearing. Not as abominable as some are making it out to be, but clearly still quite bad, one can only hope that the stars' romance is a sturdier vehicle than this slipshod effort in which they appear together. "Gigli" rates as just a 2 out of 10.

Reviewed July 23, 2003 / Posted August 1, 2003

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