The tabloid beast known as Bennifer rears its head on the big screen again. Yet Kevin Smith wants you to know, he croaks Jennifer Lopez minutes into “Jersey Girl.”
Filmmakers usually decry blabbermouths who reveal movie secrets, but writer-director Smith and distributor Miramax are quick to acknowledge Lopez’s demise, a plot twist they once had hoped to keep hidden.
The reason: The lingering cloud of box-office carbon monoxide left by “Gigli,” last summer’s bomb that was the first pairing of Lopez and real-life sweetie Ben Affleck.
A year or two ago, the prospect of Lopez and Affleck together on screen sounded like music to a studio executive’s ears. Then came the media farce over their on-again, off-again nuptials, culminating in gleefully harsh reviews of their mob comedy “Gigli,” a $54 million production that earned back just $6 million at theaters.
A long, slow anticlimax followed, as Affleck and Lopez called off their September wedding at the last minute and rumors flew about the status of their relationship. They finally called off their engagement in January.
A post-‘Gigli’ world
Everyone involved wants to distance the new flick from “Gigli,” so they’re taking an unusual tack for Hollywood and selling “Jersey Girl” truthfully for what it is: A goodhearted story of a widower (Affleck) struggling to put his life back together while raising a little girl on his own.
Lopez plays Affleck’s wife and dies in childbirth within the first 15 minutes.
“I never would have wanted to do a bait-and-switch and sell it as a Ben-and-Jen movie, then have people suddenly get irate when she dies so early,” said Smith, who previously directed Affleck in “Chasing Amy,” “Dogma,” “Mallrats” and “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.”
“In the post-‘Gigli’ climate, you’d have to be an idiot to hype it as a Ben-and-Jen movie. This way, it’s more honest,” Smith said.
Smith initially wanted the death of Lopez’s character to be a surprise, but word leaked out after test screenings. Once “Gigli” laid its egg, it was in the best interests of “Jersey Girl” to go public with Lopez’s fate and downplay her involvement.
Affleck hopes enough time has passed so audiences can view “Jersey Girl” on its own merits.
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“‘Gigli’ was a movie that definitely suffered from the surfeit of publicity about me and Jen. So it was kind of, ‘Enough already,’ before the movie came out,” Affleck said. “Also ‘Gigli,’ while it was a great experience and while I had a great time making it, didn’t really, ultimately work as a movie, and ‘Jersey Girl’ really does. I believe it’s a beautiful movie, and I’m really proud of it.”
The story of a single father
Affleck plays Ollie Trinke, a crack Manhattan music publicist who meets and marries the woman of his dreams, Gertrude Steiney (Lopez). After Gertrude’s death giving birth to their daughter, Gertie (Raquel Castro), Ollie’s professional life crumbles and he finds himself back in New Jersey, licking his wounds at the home of his father (George Carlin).
Liv Tyler co-stars as Ollie’s new romantic interest, but the heart of the story is the father-daughter attachment, inspired by Smith’s relationship with his own daughter.
To hold the focus squarely on Affleck as a single father, Smith truncated the movie’s opening, deleting scenes to reduce the romance and marriage of Affleck and Lopez to a whirlwind montage. He cut a wedding scene, a smart move given the wisecracks it would have provoked after Affleck and Lopez’s nuptial nonsense.
“Jersey Girl” is the most grown-up film yet for Smith, whose first movie “Clerks” put him at the vanguard of the 1990s wave of young independent filmmakers. The new movie has plenty of Smith’s trademark character banter, but on a mature level, without the gross-out schtick of his previous work.
With its $35 million budget ($10 million for Affleck’s salary and $4 million for Lopez’s), “Jersey Girl” is less of a risk than “Gigli.” Smith’s young, hip fan base alone could lift it to profitability.
“Kevin Smith has a following regardless of the Ben Affleck-J. Lo factor,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations. “There are a lot of his fans who will want to see this movie. That may be all it needs to rise above the ‘Gigli’ debacle.”
A careful marketing strategy
If the movie catches a break with reviewers and builds solid word of mouth, “Jersey Girl” also might lure older audiences into the Smith fold.
Still, doubters think the “Gigli” fallout could smother “Jersey Girl.”
“The person who has my greatest sympathy right now is Kevin Smith,” said John Wilson, founder of the annual Razzie awards for worst movies, where “Gigli” swept all the top categories last month. “How do you sell ‘Jersey Girl’ after this fiasco? How do you convince anyone that you want to see these two people reunited on screen?
“They may need to put Lopez in a coffin on the poster if they want anyone to come.”
The real “Jersey Girl” posters show Affleck with crossed arms, looking down at Castro in a paternal staring match.
Miramax hopes that image lingers over any groans of “Ben and Jen again.” Miramax is opening “Jersey Girl” in 1,600 theaters, about 600 fewer than “Gigli,” then gradually rolling it out to wider release over the next two weekends hoping the buzz builds and overcomes the “Gigli” taint.
“We have a completely different movie from ‘Gigli,”’ said Rick Sands, Miramax’s chief operating officer. “The movie’s the movie, and we’re proud of it. ‘Gigli’ has no influence on the marketing or distribution.”
Before “Gigli” hit theaters, Miramax moved “Jersey Girl” from its original release date last fall to this spring to avoid flooding the market with Affleck flicks. Besides “Gigli,” Affleck also starred in December’s action thriller “Paycheck.”
When “Gigli” flopped, “suddenly, our move to 2004 was the best thing that ever happened. It seemed like a brilliant move, getting us away from ‘Gigli,”’ Smith said. “If we had come out two months after ‘Gigli,’ I don’t think we would have gotten a fair shake.”
Now, Smith thinks audiences will give “Jersey Girl” a chance. The mentions “Jersey Girl” got amid the bad press for “Gigli” actually helped build awareness for Smith’s film. But whether it’s good or bad awareness remains to be seen.
“I think we have a shot to have the movie seen and reviewed for content and not its back story. I feel like enough time has passed,” Smith said. “And I felt like maybe after their breakup, there might be a macabre interest in it now.”
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