Dir: Martin Brest. US. 2003. 124mins.

If Gigli will be remembered at all it will be as the first film past the post to feature Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck. Columbia can count on some initial interest when the film opens in the US next weekend, but negative word of mouth and a critical mauling will close the door on future business. Ancillary prospects are grim, although the DVD could lure voyeurs looking to freeze-frame Ms Lopez during the film's bizarre high-point: while performing yoga she gives a monologue on the merits of the vagina.

Affleck plays Larry Gigli ('sounds like really'), a loan-shark's enforcer who can talk the talk but lacks the killer instinct necessary to excel in his profession. His disgusted employer (Venito) gives him one last chance: to help a New York kingpin facing charges in Los Angeles. Larry's assignment is to kidnap the prosecutor's brother, Brian (Bartha), and hold him until the charges are dropped.

The first twist: the brother is mentally-retarded. Gigli does what any self-respecting professional criminal would do: he takes him home. The second twist: a beautiful woman named Ricki (Lopez), claiming to be Gigli's new neighbour turns out to be a fellow enforcer sent as back-up to help hold the brother. She insults him, flirts with him and then agrees to sleep in the same bed with him. The third twist: she is a lesbian.

It almost seems as if director/screenwriter Brest, determined to break from the somnolence of his previous film, Meet Joe Black, has concocted a true genre-bender: the screwball comedy that wants to be taken seriously. All the elements are here: a sparring real-life couple, a goofy side-kick, a villain with a curled lip and a pair of mad-cap cameos courtesy of Christopher Walken and Al Pacino.

But the skittish script jumps from absurdity to absurdity without enough comedy to distract audiences from the absence of dramatic development. The film settles into a series of tit-for-tat exchanges between the two leads - heterosexual versus homosexual - that are amusing but do nothing to further the story.

Which may be for the better: the plot is unspeakable. Ordered to up the ante and send Brian's thumb to the prosecutor, the two gangsters balk. 'I didn't sign on to this to be a brutal street thug,' says Ricki. Audiences will be forgiven for asking what exactly she was expecting. The film stumbles to an undeserved sunset conclusion with everybody happy and the right person dead. Scenery-chewing cameos by Walken, as an addled police detective, and Pacino, as the addled kingpin, are fun to watch, but they only show how little acting there is in the rest of the film.

To their credit, Affleck and Lopez are game. Given some characterisation and - dare one say it' - motivation this might have been a movie. But Brest, like his central character, is talking the talk without walking the walk. He opens doors of possibility - Ricki wonders if Larry might be gay - and just as quickly shuts them. Ricki's orientation is another canard: it simply forestalls the inevitable coupling. And the film's treatment of Brian is appalling, and will draw plenty of negative publicity. Fans of the dynamic couple must now wait for Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl. At least it's a title they can pronounce.

Prod cos: Revolution Studios, City Light Films, Casey Silver Prods
US dist: Sony Pictures
Int'l dist:
Columbia TriStar Film Distributors International
Prods: Martin Brest, Casey Silver
Scr: Brest
Cinematography: Robert Elswit
Prod des: Gary Frutkoff
Ed: Julie Monroe, Billy Weber
Music: John Powell
Main cast: Ben Affleck, Jennifer Lopez, Justin Bartha, Lenny Venito, Christopher Walken, Al Pacino