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“GIGLI doesn’t need a review; it needs an inquest”

North American dvd cover design

In the entire history of cinema, has there ever been a film as universally hated as Gigli? There could be one or two, but not likely.

Of course, Gigli was despised of long before it was released. For months the advance buzz was that the film was terrible. But this “buzz” was sourced from one advance review, published on a website in March 2003, from some anonymous guy who attended a test screening. Just one. His crassly-written, amateur-style “review” was later rehashed in entertainment news right up until its release four months later.

It also didn’t help that the marketing campaign stuck to its foolhardy romantic comedy strategy, and the advance press kept insisting its stars played mob assassins.

If that wasn’t bad enough, there was a growing weariness over the constant “Bennifer” coverage. The once affectionate gossiping had turned nasty. Altogether, it was easily predicted the critics were going to slaughter Gigli before they even saw it.

And, boy, did they ever.

It’s difficult to choose which review is the most vicious. Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle gets a clever one in with this opening: “Gigli doesn’t need a review; it needs an inquest. The movie is dead on arrival.” I was especially amused by Jamie Russell’s BBC review, and the remark that “having your skin flayed by a potato peeler would be less painful.” What’s curious is that they all essentially mimic what the first review had already said four months earlier — just more eloquently, and with better grammar.

Never have so many critics agreed on one thing. Here’s a video review I assembled that includes excerpts of the critical response:

One of the very few who dared to defend it — though weakly — was Roger Ebert. Richard Roeper’s response to that was typical of the backlash such an effort tended to provoke. To even think of having any kind words for the film was almost suicidal back then.

The savagery was so widespread that Gigli is currently listed in Yahoo! Movies as the #1 “Bottom Rated Movie of All Time”.

In 2004 the Razzie Awards named it Worst Picture and further handed it awards for Worst Screenplay, Worst Director, Worst Actor, Worst Actress and Worst Screen Couple. In 2005 they gave it one more award: Worst ‘Comedy’ of Our First 25 Years.

Early poster design

This last award provides a good clue as to the misguidance of this negative backlash. Remember, this is a film that originally ended with the lovers going their separate ways, and Ben Affleck’s character getting killed. Dissing it because it failed as a romantic comedy is like complaining an apple isn’t an orange.

NOTE: If you don’t mind unlimited spoilers, this link provides extensive details of what the original ending looked like.

Truth was, audiences at test screenings predominately enjoyed the first version. It was the ending that was a letdown. That’s why the producers only tinkered with that.

Why did it need changing? Quite simply because its stars (Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez) were in the midst of a very public love affair at the time. It was widespread knowledge they had met and became lovers while making Gigli. These early audiences weren’t prepared to see — or interested in seeing — a bittersweet tragedy involving “Ben and J. Lo” (as they were commonly referred to back then). The film’s finale was just too much of a wet blanket for them. They wanted a happier ending.

And, so, the film was withheld from release, $5 million spent shooting a new ending, and a tragedy of another sort unfolded instead.

One of the early advance posters for Gigli gives a decent impression of the dark and cheeky tone the marketing had in the first place: “Murder. Blackmail. Temptation. Redemption… It’s been a busy week.”

With its new happy ending it was instead marketed as a romantic comedy but, despite these unfortunate changes, the film still has a lot of great things in it.

Final release one-sheet.

There are loads of well-written monologues, great cameo appearances by Christopher Walken and Al Pacino, and even the smaller roles — as played by Lenny Venito and Lainie Kazan for instance — bring a lot of fun to the party.

As for this being yet another story involving a Ben Affleck character sleeping with a lesbian, Gigli is not a woeful copy of Chasing Amy as many have insisted — including defenders of the film. The film makes it quite clear that Lopez’s character is actually bi-sexual, and that their relationship is more driven by their respective dominant desires and submissive needs. It’s not as effectively realized as in Secretary, but I like the film’s daring anyway. It’s not the kind of relationship that often shows up in a Hollywood film.

Sadly, the one character who keeps getting forgotten about is Brian played by Justin Bartha. Though he is a key character who helps drive the plot, he’s all too often pushed into the background while the main action goes on without him. The jokes that play on his mental illness are rarely necessary or effective either. But I do like how his seemingly nonsensical babblings about “The Baywatch,” and his love of Australian accents, eventually come together to provide a fitting happy ending for his character.

Much of the criticism has harped on selected sound bites such as Lopez’s “turkey time” bit, but they all make sense when seen in context. Christopher Walken‘s “ice cream” commentary is another example. By itself it seems bizarre and nonsensical but, within the context of the scene — a cop trying to extract information — its purpose is obvious.

The French Connection had a similar moment, but the audience at least had the benefit of seeing the Roy Scheider character briefly turning away and chuckling, letting them in on the gag. Gigli is not as direct, but it does offer this scene which helps illustrates much the same point.

It would be great to see the original cut surface someday, and presented as the cheeky relationship crime drama it really is. When I think back on two of my favorite Martin Brest films — Going in Style and Midnight Run — they both end in a similar way with the lead character walking off to an uncertain end — alone — but satisfied they did the right thing. It sounds sad, but it’s so fitting — so perfect — it always makes me smile.

Unfortunately, since it was Revolutions Studios‘ idea to change the ending in the first place — and the resulting film became a box office catastrophe — it’s doubtful they will ever release the original cut.

There are ample reports writer/director Martin Brest and studio head Joe Roth fought quite fiercely about changing the ending. Brest fought against it, of course, and Roth ended up vowing never to give directors “final cut” authority again.

Frankly, I can’t say I blame the studio for wanting to make the changes they did. At the time, it seemed the best course of action. Test audiences did like the film. They just hated the ending.

But that wasn’t Brest‘s fault either. It was just bad timing to release that kind of ending, at that stage in the “Ben and J. Lo” phenomenon. Nobody could have predicted any of this when they started making the film.

What somebody should have realized was that changing the ending would delay the distribution by at least six months. This was especially dangerous for a film that already had a lot of press coverage.

As the months continued ticking by, people were starved for insight. That one advance review was the only meal they could find, and the press fed off of it repeatedly. During all this, the once fawning “Ben and J. Lo” coverage became snide, unflattering “Bennifer” commentary. The star couple had worn out their welcome, and the bad Gigli buzz just gave a lot of people the ammunition they needed to mow them down for good.

It’s quite a shame. The ingredients of a pretty good film are still there.

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Special thanks to The Wife whose honest feedback helped with the final edit of the video review. Thanks should also go to the Yellow Submarine movie for inspiring the “All Together Now” homage it features. The song, as it appeared in that movie, seemed a perfect way to showcase all the critical reviews.

One Comment

  1. Jaimie Vernon says:

    Nice write-up, Darryl. And you never had to resort to comparisons with “Showgirls” (which. despite the revisionist history tag as deliberate “camp” WAS the worst film ever made). 🙂
    I may actually stop and watch “Gigli” next time it’s on TV.

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