'Gigli' at 20: A look back at the epic Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck bomb that forced its director into retirement

Much-hyped Bennifer vehicle fell apart when the studio tried retooling mob drama into a romantic comedy.

Illustration by Victoria Ellis for Yahoo ; Photo: Everett Collection
Illustration by Victoria Ellis for Yahoo; photo: Everett Collection

While it didn’t seem possible at the time, in the end, it all worked out for Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez.

Today, the pair remain two of Hollywood’s most prolific, celebrated and prosperous entertainers — and they successfully rekindled their high-profile romance, marrying in 2022.

But 20 years ago, on Aug. 1, 2003, the duo dropped a bomb on the world. It was called Gigli, widely considered one of the worst films of the century, if not of all time. Gigli was a bad film, and a box-office turkey, sure; but the film endured an abnormal, arguably unfair, amount of lambasting due in large part to the A-listers’ off-screen coupling, resulting in inescapable tabloid coverage for their “Bennifer” antics.

Individually, their careers were in primo shape at the time. Affleck, 30, was only six years removed from his Oscar-winning breakout in Good Will Hunting (1997), while subsequent films like Armageddon (1998) and Pearl Harbor (2001) made him a marquee star. Even though his first superhero outing, Daredevil, which arrived six months earlier in 2003, was a critical misfire, it still grossed nearly $180 million. Lopez, the 34-year-old former In Living Color Fly Girl Lopez, had similarly broken out at the same time, with 1997’s Selena and 1998’s Out of Sight, and by 1999, she was also a bona fide pop star.

GIGLI, Jennifer Lopez, director Martin Brest, Ben Affleck, Justin Bartha on the set, 2003, (c) Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection
Jennifer Lopez, director Martin Brest, Ben Affleck and Justin Bartha on the set of Gigli. (Photo: Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection) (©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Written and directed by Martin Brest, who had become one of the industry’s top filmmakers in the 1980s (WarGames, Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run) and guided Al Pacino to an Oscar win for 1992’s Scent of Woman, Gigli was ostensibly a crime film. Affleck played the titular low-level L.A. mobster who is tasked with kidnapping the mentally challenged younger brother (Justin Bartha) of the prominent district attorney prosecuting his boss (Pacino).

Halle Berry was initially offered the role of Ricki, the lesbian independent contractor hired to make sure “nice guy” gangster Larry Gigli gets the job done. But she had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts with her superhero sequel X2: X-Men United. Lopez joined the cast in late 2021 for a salary of $12 million (Affleck earned $12.5 million, because Hollywood).

Gigli (pronounced "Jee-lee" not "Giggly") went into production on Dec. 10, 2001 with a reported budget of $54 million. While Affleck and Lopez had met at industry events, they became friendly on the set. Lopez was then married to her second husband, her former backup dancer Cris Judd, but she began dating Affleck a few months after shooting commenced — and notably before her divorce from Judd was finalized in 2003. In an interview with Diane Sawyer in November 2002, Lopez announced her (first) engagement to Affleck.

Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez (dress by Gucci) arriving at the premiere of
Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez arrive at the premiere of Gigli. (Photo: Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images) (Frank Trapper via Getty Images)

With the fledgling celebrity couple dominating headlines and Gigli still in production, the film’s distributors, Sony Pictures and Revolution Studios, took creative control from Brest and rewrote the film, transforming a conventional mob drama into a romantic comedy to capitalize on Bennifer mania. "Martin Brest is one of the really great directors … but it just didn’t work,” Affleck said in 2012. “The studio wanted to change it into a love story, because they thought, ‘That’s what people want to see because you guys are together now.’ Which is one of the great miscalculations in the history of miscalculations.”

With that major shift and other reshoots (including changing the film’s ending, in which Gigli dies, after test audiences revolted), the budget ballooned to more than $75 million. “The entire context of the film was upended so profoundly, the original intention was pretty much obliterated. I wonder if ever a movie had been changed that much,” Brest told Variety in a rare interview published last month. “Extensive disagreements between the studio and myself got to the point where post-production was shut down for eight months while we battled it out. In the end I was left with two choices: quit or be complicit in the mangling of the movie. To my eternal regret I didn’t quit, so I bear responsibility for a ghastly cadaver of a movie.”

Though the film wrapped principal photography in March 2002, reshoots, editing and post-production would take a year and a half — accompanied by growing bad buzz.

“Reports about the making of Gigli were so toxic that you began to wonder if they could really be true. Surely no movie could be that bad,” wrote Newsweek’s Jeff Giles.

Indeed. Upon its release on Aug. 1, 2003, Gigli was savaged for myriad reasons.

Among the most egregious: Affleck’s Gigli tirelessly working to seduce the lesbian Ricki — his gay-conversion charm offensive felt offensive 20 years ago and seems even worse today (Affleck had also played a character with similar aims in 1997’s Chasing Amy).

Nor did the film offer a particularly nuanced portrayal of mental illness when it comes to Bartha’s Brian. His condition is never specified and he has to endure being called an “effin’ retard” by Gigli.

Despite the lengths the studio went to exploit their relationship, the chemistry between Affleck and Lopez was sorely lacking.

And that’s not even mentioning the Frankensteined plot and litany of failed comedic moments.

The reviews were predictably brutal.

“It’s every bit as atrocious as you may have heard. Nay, worse,” posited the Daily Telegraph. “Mere words fail to express the awfulness of Martin Brest's Gigli,” stated London’s The Times. “Every bit as unwatchable as the deafening negative chatter would suggest,” noted the Associated Press. “Torture,” Empire Magazine piled on. “Impossible to imagine how it could've been worse.”

“I've never seen this kind of vitriol, just plain open hostility about a movie,” wrote Good Morning America’s Joel Siegel at the time while admitting it was a “dreadful romantic comedy.”

The Onion ran a satirical headline claiming focus groups were demanding a new ending where both leads died brutal deaths.

The movie bombed at the box office, grossing a paltry $7 million — a fraction of its runaway budget and one-third the combined salaries of Bennifer.

Actor Chris O'Donnell, actor Al Pacino and director Martin Brest attend the 50th Annual Golden Globe Awards on January 23, 1993 at Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)
Chris O'Donnell, Al Pacino and director Martin Brest attend the 50th Annual Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 23, 1993 in Beverly Hills. (Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images) (Ron Galella, Ltd. via Getty Images)

“It’s really a bloody mess that deserved its excoriation,” Brest told Variety.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of Gigli is what happened to Brest, an otherwise revered director. “Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez will survive Gigli. But it will be interesting to see what becomes of the director, Martin Brest,” Newsweek’s Giles speculated at the time of its release.

Brest hasn’t made a film since, essentially forced into early retirement following the reception to Gigli. “Of all the movies that I’ve worked on, I know them inside and out. I don’t even know what that movie looks like, frankly, because of the manner in which it took shape,” Brest told Variety. “Even the name… I refer to it as ‘The G Movie.’ Probably the less said about it the better.”

Brest hasn’t directed anything since, but told Variety he has written two unproduced scripts. “I had a good run,” he says.

Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez at the premiere of
Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez at the premiere of The Mother on May 10, 2023 in Los Angeles. (Photo: John Salangsang/Variety via Getty Images) (Variety via Getty Images)

Affleck and Lopez called off their engagement in early 2004 (Lopez would partly blame the media scrutiny). But not only did their careers survive, they ultimately flourished. Affleck eventually played Batman and, apparently inspired by Gigli, he launched an impressive directing career with 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, followed by 2010’s The Town, 2012’s Oscar champ Argo, and this year’s crowd-pleasing sneaker biopic Air. Lopez continues to be a triple threat and global icon, with 80 million records sold, a Super Bowl halftime show under her belt, and a performance in 2019’s Hustlers many believed was snubbed by the Academy.

While both had other high-profile marriages after their breakup (Affleck to Jennifer Garner, Lopez to Marc Anthony), they reconnected in 2021, were engaged a year later and finally tied the knot in July 2022.

“I did get to meet Jennifer,” Affleck said last year of Gigli. “The relationship with whom has been really meaningful to me in my life.”

While not currently streaming on any major service, Gigli is available for rent/download from all major providers, incuding YouTube, Prime Video, Apple TV+ and Google Play.