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Hot couple a winning pair in 'Gigli'

Friday, August 01, 2003

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

The idea is to kidnap the retarded brother of a federal prosecutor in order to dissuade him from sending a mob don to jail. As crime brainstorms go, this one was concocted by a real wit -- but dim or half?


RATING: R for sexual content, pervasive language and violence

STARRING: Ben Affleck, Jennifer Lopez, Justin Bartha

DIRECTOR: Martin Brest

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Even less brilliant than the plan is the executor, a wannabe thug named Larry Gigli (Ben Affleck). That's pronounced "zhee-lee," not "giggly," he has to keep correcting people. In his own words (and mind), he is "the sultan of slick" -- a powerful hot-cross bun between Elvis, Ricky Nelson and the young James Caan.

Larry looks the part, all right, but his brain is a step or two behind his brawn throughout "Gigli," the lively new action-romance by Martin Brest.

Larry's competence is dubious even to his employers. Right after he nabs the boy, they send a second contractor to join him and make sure he does the job right. Insult to injury: It's a woman (Jennifer Lopez).

But Larry is nothing if not adaptable. As a prelude to allowing her to have sex with him ("a one-time offer"), he pumps himself up in front of the bathroom mirror with an ode to the "male machinery and design." He's like Ralph Cramden setting himself up to be shot down by Alice, and this Alice has very good aim. God's gift to Lopez? She begs to differ -- no, she insists on differing in a fabulous monologue on the aesthetic difference (and relative desirability) of the male and female anatomy.

The good news: She's beautiful and smart. The bad news: She's a lesbian.

Or is she lying?

Meanwhile, there's the ongoing annoyance of Brian, their hostage (Justin Bartha). He's a "psychologically challenged" Rain Boy with a little Tourette's syndrome thrown in, obsessively nagging Larry to take him to see the "real" Baywatch chicks. ("It's not my fault I'm brain-damaged.") Brian insists on being read to sleep every night, even if it's only the tabasco bottle label or the back of the Charmin wrapper. Larry doesn't own any books.

Writer-director Martin Brest's offbeat characters have been a screen treat in every quirky action-comedy he has made: "Going in Style" (1979), "Beverly Hills Cop" (1984 -- did you know Eddie Murphy was a last-minute replacement for Sly Stallone!) and "Midnight Run" (1988), among others. If De Niro's Marty is Scorsese, Al Pacino's is Brest -- who gave him his Oscar ticket in "Scent of a Woman."

Pacino gives back here, with one of two fabulous cameo appearances that, by themselves, make the film worth seeing: The first comes early on from Christopher Walken as a weird, weary, wild-eyed cop who never lets go of his styrofoam coffee cup. He suspects yet can't prove anything on Affleck but drops by just to monsterize him, on principle.

Pacino's later star turn is even more hilarious, fueled by his even more maniacal eyes. "Come in, come in! Sit down, sit down! Listen to me, I say everything twice!" he babbles -- before finishing off the hilarity with a touch of "Pulp Fiction" horror. Walken and Pacino each has a grand total of one scene, but boy, do they both make the most of it.

Bonus: a third bizarre character, who also bursts in for just one funny scene -- Lopez's furious jilted lover.

"It must be mental [expletive] illness week," sighs Larry.

Affleck and Lopez haven't heretofore been favorites of mine, but they're getting to be -- thanks to these well-written parts that give them something to do other than look beautiful. Newcomer Bartha is charming. Lainie Kazan as Larry's over-the-top mom is not.

The "serious" romantic and sexual soul-searching, when it inevitably occurs, is pretty fast, loose and glib. But hey, this isn't Ingmar Bergman -- although there is a Swedish connection: Brest's entertaining twist on the Stockholm syndrome.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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