- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2003

P-Diddy and Matt Damon must be looking pretty good in retrospect.

Lovebirds Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, as you may have been warned, are starring in “Gigli,” a new film eliciting comparisons to storied Hollywood turkeys “Ishtar,” “Heaven’s Gate,” even “Glitter.”

The film grossed just a rounded-up $3.8 million in its opening weekend, according figures released by Exhibitor Relations. Its take landed it in eigth place behind Pixar’s animated smash “Finding Nemo,” which has been in release for so long that Nemo has since been found.

In a New York Times Web poll, readers had given “Gigli” a score of 1.16 on a scale of 1 to 5 as this went to press.

Easy-to-please film critic Joel Siegel of ABC’s “Good Morning America” said he was “shocked” at how bad “Gigli” is. Audiences in previews, when there still were audiences, have tittered over its inane dialogue, particularly one scene in which J.Lo, playing seductive, tells Mr. Affleck’s character, “It’s turkey time. Gobble gobble.”

For that gift, headline writers nationwide are giving thanks.

Like that lame stab at humor? Then you’ll love “Gigli.”

What’s an It Couple to do?

Break off the engagement and pawn the rock, of course, but beyond that, they might look into the practice of Buddhism or other Eastern belief systems, because it turns out there is life after death in Hollywood.

There may, in fact, be several such lives.

Just ask John Travolta. After starring in two of the top-grossing movie musicals of all time in the ‘70s, the screen idol’s stock crashed following 1978’s “Moment by Moment” and 1985’s “Perfect,” a downward spiral that didn’t even begin to level off until the surprise success of “Look Who’s Talking” in 1989. Eventually, with “Pulp Fiction” in 1994, he fully regained altitude. But now the guy’s pushing his luck. The practicing Scientologist hit a new career low with 2000’s “Battlefield Earth,” an expensive object lesson in why many people opt to keep their religious convictions private. Let’s hope Mr. Travolta still has Quentin Tarantino’s cell-phone number.

Kevin Costner is another member of the elite survivors’ club who has risen from the dead after two career killers, “Waterworld” (1995) and “The Postman” (1997). The trick, Mr. Costner discovered, is that after two such atrocities, people hardly notice how crummy the next one is. So, by the time “3,000 Miles From Graceland” came around, critical perspective on the actor’s career was so distorted that people thought, He’s done worse, and gave him a pass. This bought Mr. Costner precious time to creep back to respectability while nobody was paying attention to him anymore. A little patience is all. A “Tin Cup” here and a “Thirteen Days” there, and before you know it, you’re no longer a national laughingstock. With this month’s “Open Range,” he even returns to the director’s chair and a genre, the Western, that has been good to him.

Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty manfully went back to work after “Ishtar” expired in a desert of critical derision and public indifference. Mr. Hoffman came back to win an Oscar the very next year, for “Rain Man.” It was only then that the esteemed actor began his long slide into irrelevance. See, it’s the hits that trip you up. They invite hubris. Humiliating failure — that’s medicinal, rejuvenating even: After “Ishtar,” Mr. Beatty went on to portray characters half his age for another quarter century.

Madonna is responsible for at least two memorable turkeys, both collaborations with her husband of the moment — 1986’s “Shanghai Surprise,” co-starring Sean Penn, and last year’s “Swept Away,” directed by her current husband, Guy Ritchie. The latter, a timely remake of a ‘70s-vintage Eurocommunist fairy tale about class struggle, proved so wretched it wasn’t released in England, where Madonna shares a home with her British hubby and pursues her hobbies: folk guitar strumming, Jewish mysticism and motherhood.

Madonna’s movie trauma recovery strategy has always been to change the subject with a hit record. And a good strategy it was, too, for a long time, until the release of her latest album, “American Life.” Now what? Change the subject with a hit movie? Wipe that grin off your face. No, it looks like the wise course for Madonna is the obvious: a divorce. She can afford one.

Miss Lopez and Mr. Affleck and Madonna and (husband’s name here) aren’t the first Hollywood couples to find themselves co-starring in a dud during the peak of their mutual passion. Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger met, and fell in love, while shooting Neil Simon’s tepid 1991 film “The Marrying Man.” But Miss Basinger gamely rebounded a few years later to win her first Oscar, for “L.A. Confidential.” Meanwhile, Mr. Baldwin has begun testing the progressive political waters, learning that among Democrats likely to vote in 2004 he trails John Cusack among joke candidates for president.

In the worst case, a turkey can wreck an entire studio.

“Heaven’s Gate” (1980) helped kill United Artists, the Western genre and the maverick career of director Michael Cimino all in one fell swoop. Indeed, the thesis of a popular book, Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders and Raging Bulls,” was erected on the premise that with this budget-busting fiasco Mr. Cimino almost single-handedly brought to an end a golden age of artistic excellence and directorial pre-eminence in American film.

But, hey, wasn’t that wedding scene in “The Deer Hunter” great?

Other directors, such as Robert Altman, have been more fortunate. He has been responsible for some major duds, including 1979’s “Quintet” and his 1994 satire of haute couture, “Pret-a-Porter.” The latter included a scene depicting a procession of nude fashion models streaming in that swaying way along a runway, in both directions — and lost money. Not one to be defeated by an inexplicable failure, the director ultimately turned things around in 2001 with “Gosford Park,” an inexplicable hit. But darned if bit actors and extras on Mr. Altman’s sets don’t go right on chattering away in the background, straight through shots — entire scenes, even — with no respect for his many successes in the film medium.

Where were we? Yes, turkeys. And ducks. George Lucas executive-produced 1986’s “Howard the Duck,” based on the cult comic book, and discovered his “Star Wars” magic wasn’t enough to pack the theaters — or even stem the derisive laughter. But after a long hibernation, Mr. Lucas made his directorial comeback with the “Star Wars” prequels. Episodes 1 and 2 of the projected trilogy showed beyond any doubt that Mr. Lucas could still pack the theaters — and must have learned to live with the derisive laughter.

Now, what does all this mean for Jen and Ben in the aftermath of “Gigli?”

Above all, they must resist the very human impulse to dwell on their misfortune. They must keep their sights fixed on the future. Their next scheduled project together, director Kevin Smith’s “Jersey Girl,” is due for release next year. It sounds promising. If it’s a hit, “Gigli” will be forgotten, which would be progress.

And if not?

Jen could simply — why stop now? — ape Madonna: Hit record, change the subject.

For Ben, matters are not so easy. He would have no choice but to change partners.

Ah, but will Matt be so quick to have him back?

That’s up to him, but after “All the Pretty Horses,” he’d have small justification not to.

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