We have now entered the first movie era in which celebrity is threatening to eclipse stardom. You may think that those two words mean the same thing, yet the distinction used to be vital. Stars, those gods of the earth, enthrall and entrance; celebrities merely intrigue. Stars have magic; celebrities require only fame.
In Gigli, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez play Mob enforcers, or functionaries, or accountants, or something, who are stuck together on assignment. Through all of the forced bonhomie of their fighting and flirting, the movie, in its eccentrically patchy and rambling way, has been designed to feed off the golden battery of their dual wattage as the royal hot couple of infotainment gossip.
Affleck is Larry Gigli (pronounced ''jeely'' -- got it?), a sweet, volatile lunkhead who flaunts a bicep tattoo just ornate enough to look as if it had been sanctioned by a queer-eye makeover. Larry, who speaks in a preening, vaguely Italian stupido-bum style, tosses out comments like ''In every relationship, there's a bull and a cow!'' Affleck sounds as if he prepared for the role by studying tapes of old De Niro monologues, and maybe a few of Andrew Dice Clay. Lopez is Ricki (no barely pronounceable last name, just Ricki), who's a yoga freak, a proud lesbian, and an all-around therapized model of self-sufficiency. With her emotionally lacquered cool, Lopez sounds as if she prepared for the role by studying a tape loop of her last six months of TV interviews. These two are given the thankless, and borderline nonsensical, coassignment of looking after Brian (Justin Bartha), whom Larry has just kidnapped. The younger brother of a federal prosecutor, Brian is a mentally challenged young man obsessed with hip-hop and with that mythical place he calls ''the Baywatch.'' If you think you haven't lived until you've heard Hollywood's version of a mentally challenged nerd doing old-school rap, then please think again.
Written and directed by Martin Brest (''Scent of a Woman''), ''Gigli'' is a watchable bad movie, but it's far from your typical cookie-cutter blockbuster. There are no shoot-outs or car chases, and there isn't much romantic suspense, either. The scenes tend to lurch and wander, as if they'd been semi-improvised and the director had forgotten to yell ''cut.'' Brest seems to be aiming for a mood of shaggy-dog naturalism. Characters bark and yell and stumble over their insults, and all the slipshod distemper is supposed to be vaguely funny, because...well, because it's Ben and J. Lo nitpicking at each other like Tony and Stephanie in a summer-stock production of ''Saturday Night Fever.''
The plot, what there is of it, consists of Larry and Ricki sparring cute in Larry's L.A. apartment, then riding in a car, then threatening some kids who are blasting a radio at a fast-food joint (Lopez has a good, tense moment in which she explains an ancient procedure for eyeball gouging), then returning to the apartment to spar some more. At one point, Christopher Walken shows up, gassing on about ice cream, for no apparent reason other than to give the movie a fast jolt of Walken flake appeal.
The two Mob soldiers who are ordered to join forces like buddy cops, the kid in their custody who's like a junior Rain Man -- it's all movie clichés out of the '80s. In Brest's slapdash style, however, we could almost be watching staged rehearsals for an '80s cliché-fest. ''Gigli,'' with its random and repetitive screwball hostility, generates more noise than heat. You can feel the movie slipping into the oblivion of celebrity narcissism when Ricki engages in a spectacularly gratuitous late-night yoga session, which makes it look as though Lopez were one hoisted thigh away from launching her own workout video; between bends, Ricki attempts to enlighten Larry as to the superiority of the female sexual organ. Yet as the spectre of seduction looms, the movie takes a weirdly revealing leap off the famous love connection of its two featured players.
Ricki, as she explains, is attracted to Larry because beneath his macho pose he's really -- yes -- a symbolic woman; Ricki can therefore be the dominating force. In conventional movie terms, this flip-flop of Larry's braggadocio is far too tidy to be convincing, but as an explanation of the cheeseball tabloid circus that is Ben and J. Lo, it makes perfect sense: She's the booty to his genteel beauty, the meat to his white bread -- the bull to his cow. ''Gigli,'' after all its nattering triviality, turns into the story of how Larry finds love by embracing the role of pretty-boy accessory. In the end, J. Lo is on top, Ben is on the bottom, and, make no mistake, it's celebrity -- his own -- that is pinning his arms down.