Chemistry 101: Not Much 'Gee!' in Gigli

Sometimes actors who hate each other can still create sparks on screen, and sometimes off-screen chemistry can't be captured by the camera (and sometimes even if it is it can't save a lousy movie).

Even the 12 people who saw Two Much don't remember it, yet it rates a footnote in history as the picture Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas were making when they fell in love.

Gigli merits the same kind of footnote– and the same-sized audience– for bringing Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez together. Their Chasing Amy 2 romance is set against the background of an incompetently scripted gangster comedy that ranks with the worst of its genre, such as The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight.

The performers are like a bunch of high school drama geeks trying to play tough guys. That includes Affleck, who is pumped up and dressed in what look like Travolta's hand-me-downs. There are basically four characters, with guest stars Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Lainie Kazan popping up for one scene each. Pacino is obviously repaying a debt to director Martin Brest, who guided him to an Oscar in Scent of a Woman.

Affleck stars as Larry Gigli. He says it "rhymes with really" but J.Lo fans can pronounce it "G.Lee" and be close enough. He's a low-level thug, basically a screw-up, in L.A. He takes his marching orders from Louis (Lenny Venito, a less-than-third-rate knockoff of Joe Pantoliano).

One day Louis entrusts Larry with an important job, the kidnapping of Brian (Justin Bartha), a mentally challenged teenager. It turns out Brian's big brother is the federal prosecutor who's about to throw the book at a New York mobster (Pacino) unless he can be persuaded to drop the charges to get his brother back.

Larry gives as little thought to the execution of the caper as writer Brest did to its planning. Working alone, he walks into the institution where the youth resides and walks out with him, taking him to his own apartment, where he doesn't bother to close the curtains.

Soon a woman who gives her name as "Ricki" charms her way in before announcing Louis sent her. Apparently Louis thought the job could be better handled by "two unacquainted, possibly hostile contractors" than, say, a well-oiled team.

For the next few days, while Brian is presumably the object of an intense manhunt, "Ricki" and Larry drive around town in Larry's open convertible with the volatile youth, who is prone to attention-getting outbursts. At night they sleep in the bedroom while Brian is in the living room with nothing between him and the exit. He's happy watching the Cartoon Network but could easily switch to the news and see himself.

The frustrating but endearing Brian brings out "Ricki's" maternal instinct the first time she sees Larry slap him. "Leave him alone or I'll kill you," she orders. They're both such desperate characters that they turn to jelly when Louis orders them to cut off Brian's thumb. Maybe their aptitude tests got mixed up with other people's.

At the end a situation that should bring a full S.W.A.T. team (if only to cross-promote that movie) within a couple of minutes allows time for about 10 minutes of resolution without a single siren or flashing light.

But all that stuff is just an excuse to bring the stars together for Gigli's real raison d'etre, the love story. It begins from the guy's point of view: There's this hot babe in his apartment who accepts an offer to share his bed rather than sleep on the floor (or make him sleep on the floor). It seems to end when she interrupts his seduction attempt with, "I'm gay. I'm a lesbian."

At this point viewers will assume she's telling him that to end the conversation– she's not available, period– and that later she'll warm to him and the movie will get back on track.

The last part is right but not the first. Her name's not really Ricki, but she really is a lesbian. (At least you can't say the trailers give too much away on this one.) He introduces her that way to his mother (Kazan), who understands: "I used to be quite experimental." The lover (Missy Crider) "Ricki" recently dumped tracks her to Larry's and attempts suicide.

While they're still on opposite sides of the orientation divide they have a cute conversation where Larry expounds on the Power of the Penis and "Ricki" trumps him with a Vagina Monologue while scantily clad and doing exercises that drive him wild.

Even as she becomes quite experimental, "Ricki" teases Larry about his own orientation and makes him question whether he can compete with the women she's known. When she offers herself to him she says, "I thought you wanted to be my bitch" and he replies, "This is so fucked-up"– as good a capsule review of Gigli as I can come up with.

Brest peppers his screenplay with crowd-pleasing elements (mainly Bartha's Brian) and devices from Screenwriting 101. Louis is learning a new word a day. Pacino repeats himself a couple of times and explains, "I say everything twice." He gives a couple of examples, then never repeats himself again. At least no one's trying to quit smoking.

In the long run, your tolerance for Gigli will depend on how much you like the stars, individually and together. I've enjoyed each of them in some of their films but think they're half as interesting as a couple than they are separately. So I'm not the kind of fan who would forgive them anything, which is what's required here.

How far would Tracy and Hepburn have gotten as a team if they'd had to spout dialogue like, "Come over here and practice your heterolingus on me"?