When J. Lo Met Ben Affleck, It Heralded the Moment That Tabloid Voyeurism Replaced Movie Stardom

If the on-and-off-and-[big pause!]-on-again love story of Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck were a dramatic television series (and let’s be clear, it is, even if it also happens to be real), the fact that it has now been relaunched with the two of them getting married over the weekend in Las Vegas is simply beyond perfect. It’s like the new season of some paparazzi-movie-star version of “And Just Like That” kicking off in that overly on-the-nose way that is part of what makes that show such delectable comfort food. But then, who would expect anything less from Ben and J.Lo, the first brand-name celebrity couple to be fused, by us, into one name? Ah, Bennifer! The very sound of it can provoke a swoon of nostalgia for the early 2000s, when these two ruled the tabloids as no one had before. Overnight, they became the Liz and Dick of the new over-the-top, all-voyeurism-all-the-time, amusing-ourselves-to-death 21st-century gossip culture.

And once we, led by them, had passed through that looking glass, there was no going back. With Bennifer, you could feel the vicarious hall-of-mirrors narcotic reality of a celebrity love affair not just competing with actual reality but, for the first time, defeating and replacing it. This would be our lives now: watching famous people live theirs, which thanks to the Internet we could now, for the first time, do 24/7. Social media hadn’t been invented yet, but in spirit it was born with Bennifer. They were our walking, talking instagram of love.

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And, of course, just as Liz and Dick had a famous bad movie to launch them, so did J. Lo and Ben. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had begun their torrid love affair on the set of “Cleopatra” in 1961, and by the time the movie came out, in 1963, it seemed to be all about the two of them. The same can be said for “Gigli,” the infamous debacle of a 2003 romantic comedy. Lopez and Affleck first got involved during the shooting of it, in 2002, and by the time the film came out, in August 2003, what was happening on screen seemed a mere footnote to the real-life dramatic series of their romance. “Cleopatra” was an iconic movie, a four-hour spectacle of ancient glitz bloated with expense and designed to lure audiences back from their pesky new loyalty to the small screen. Nothing about “Gigli,” when it came out, looked especially iconic; it wasn’t showy or expensive, and it was given such a rude collective backhand by the critics that it died a quick death.

Yet in the wake of the reigniting of the Bennifer saga, I decided to go back and watch “Gigli” again. And what you can see now, more clearly than you could then, is that the film’s very badness incarnates the change that the culture was going through. It marked the moment when movie stardom got smaller, in part because it could no longer compete with the tabloid circus around it. Or as I put it in my review of “Gigli” for Entertainment Weekly, “We’ve now entered the first movie era in which celebrity is threatening to eclipse stardom. You may think those two words mean the same thing, yet the distinction used to be vital. Stars, those gods of the earth, enthral and entrance; celebrities simple intrigue. Stars have magic; celebrities have only fame.”

Even the title of “Gigli” carried an unintentional smirk of infamy. It seemed to be telling us that this was going to be a movie about someone who was jigglybut also that it was okay if we got a little giggly about it. As we learn, the last name of Larry Gigli, the lunkish L.A. hoodlum played by Affleck, is pronounced “jeely” (“rhymes with really”), which just made you go, Really?

Here’s the cruel irony of “Gigli.” Affleck had become a major star, and so had Lopez, who with “Selena” and “Out of Sight” and “The Wedding Planner” behind her was now, in effect, her own brand. What “Gigli” could have been, and should have been, according to the movie-studio logic of the day, was a successful piece of plastic screwball: a glib fast-moving cookie-cutter rom-com about two underworld contractors who get hooked up to the same assignment, and during the course of trying to carry it out they flirt and biker, they team up to defeat the evil mobster they’re both working for, and they fall in love. If the movie had been that script-by-numbers POS, it might have been a mid-level hit, and would have gone down as another piece of forgottentable fluff.

But the film’s writer-director, Martin Brest, who had made “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Midnight Run” and “Scent of a Woman” and “Meet Joe Black,” came down with a strange case of independent ambition. He tried, in his way, to make a “personal” movie, almost a ’70s movie, by keeping it all quirky and small-scale and by slowing everything down. He shot the film in generic LA apartments and dropped the shoot-outs and chases and other box-office elements that you might have expected to propel a comic caper like this one. He tried to make it all “real.” Instead, though, what he wound up doing is holding the fakery up to the light.

There is so much in “Gigli” you could never get away with today, and that’s a good thing. The plot turns on Affleck’s Larry and Lopez’s Ricki kidnapping and babysitting a mentally challenged kid, played by Justin Bartha, who makes you feel, at times, like you’re watching some Disney Channel version of “Rain Man.” You don’t know the meaning of cringe until you see him do his old-school raps or natter on about wanting to visit “the Baywatch” (which he finally does, in the most cringe-worthy scene of all).

Seen today, though, the most shockingly out-of-touch element of “Gigli” is the fact that the Lopez character is a lesbian, and that this is presented as the film’s romantic obstacle. Larry, who Affleck plays as a cross between a lackey on “The Sopranos” and Andrew Dice Clay, flexes his tattooed biceps and says things like, “In every relationship, there’s a bull and a cow!” This means that in his mind, all that needs to happen for Ricki to fall in love with him is for her to receive a hunka hunka burnin’ love from a real man. It’s one thing for Larry to think this. The way “Gigli” is set up, though, there can’t be a romance unless the film basically believes it too.

The movie tries to get away with its caveman politics by flipping the switch on what macho is. Ricki keeps telling Larry that he’s got a hidden feminine side, and that a woman’s sexual organ is superior, as an object of worship, to a man’s. She’s telling him that in the brave new world, she’s the one on top. And that’s what he has to accept to win her. Yet the weird meaning of “Gigli,” in its chintzy and cringy and at times perversely watchable bad-movie way, is that the power Ricki is talking about seems to have descended from the new mythology of tabloid celebrity culture. Twenty years ago, part of what made the Bennifer saga new and different is that Affleck, caught in the vortex of this media-fueled fairy tale, came off as the passive, subservient one. Lopez was the princess, the one driving the story, the one on top. He was the hunky deer caught in headlights.

And yet after 18 months, they both jumped off the tabloid train. The romance that was supposed to culminate in their getting hitched ended, instead, with Lopez marrying Marc Anthony and Affleck marrying Jennifer Garner. And just like that, the tale was over. But never underestimate the power of the postmodern gossip world that the romance of these two effectively christened. Just when Ben and J.Lo thought they were out, they got pulled back in. They got married after all. Sure, they’re human beings with actual feelings who did it in real life. Yet maybe we can all be forgiven if we feel like they really did it for us. “Gigli” is just a bad movie. But when it comes to the eternal consumption of the love story that is Bennifer, are we not entertained?

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