COMMENTARY

Has Ben Affleck's"Deep Water" left you asking why? Look back at "Gigli"

"Gigli" is the border between Ben Affleck, sex symbol and the post-period where he can't pull off erotic thrillers

By Melanie McFarland

Published March 27, 2022 3:30PM (EDT)

Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas in "Deep Water"  (20th Century Studios/Hulu)
Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas in "Deep Water" (20th Century Studios/Hulu)

Being alive in America through the late 20th and early 21st centuries means that at some point, you may have questioned at least one of Ben Affleck's decisions.

Typically this takes the form of the one word query at the center of life, the universe and everything: "Why?" You may have screamed "WHY?!" at the clouds upon first hearing he'd taken over the role of Batman from Christian Bale.

"Why did anyone think Ben Affleck was the right choice to star in an erotic thriller?"

Maybe you cackled it in response to his ridiculous back tattoo's beach side premiere. Surviving "Deep Water," his latest film, doesn't happen without invoking the adverb at some point, either as a lone term or to open any number of inquiries. "Why am I watching this?" "Why did this movie get made?"  And the fairest question of all: "Why did anyone think Ben Affleck was the right choice to star in an erotic thriller?"

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Ben Affleck is about as panty-wetting as a dehydrated gelatin cube, but for some reason the producers of "Deep Water" cast him opposite ex-girlfriend Ana de Armas as married couple Vic and Melinda Van Allen. Vic is a wealthy man who likes riding his bike while looking sad-mad. Melinda loves getting drunk and making out with snackable himbos in front of all their friends.

But whatever steam their story generates is rising from de Armas' side of the sensual see-saw; she may be holding up her end of the "erotic thriller" bargain, but Affleck mainly looks like a man in need of some Metamucil and a long afternoon nap.

We are not here to beat up on ol' Bat-fleck although in the larger scheme of things, that would be a victimless crime, relatively speaking. Regardless of how poorly Affleck's performances register with critics, or feebly his films perform, or whatever new ways his ignorance makes itself known, the man won't ever lack for work.

However, he has also arrived at a point in his career, and life, when some people learn to recognize their strengths and limitations. At 49, Affleck is (hopefully) self-aware enough to look back over his life and career, ascertain what works and what doesn't, and select projects accordingly. And Affleck has learned some hard lessons very publicly, one of the toughest resulting from starring in "Gigli."

Yes, we're going there. Why? Because that 2003 disaster is when Jenny from the Block and everyone's seventh favorite cousin from Boston also met for the first time. More to the point, it's the border between the Ben Affleck that was and the one that is, and a code-breaking cypher for why "Deep Water" is so uncomfortably, stupidly dreadful.

Affleck first met Lopez on the "Gigli" set, igniting an affection real and potent enough to rekindle after 17 years apart. But that heat translated to the big screen . . . not at all.

Affleck and de Armas also met and began dating during this film's production – just like O.G. Bennifer! – but as was the case there, no amount of the stars' off-screen boning conjured even a twang of aphrodisiacal tension within "Deep Water." The gastropods in this flick give off more chemistry than its humans.

If you've never seen "Gigli," and I recommend continuing that lifelong winning streak, it may seem more natural to liken Vic and Melinda to the agonized dance he and Rosamund Pike perform in 2014's "Gone Girl."

But there was nothing sexy in that film's sales pitch. Affleck and Pike play a married couple whose ardor for one another has withered; Affleck's Nick is depressed and desperate for his wife to forgive him for cheating, while Pike's resentful Amy, a woman defined by her brilliance and psychopathy, would rather destroy him. By the time the audience enters the story, smashing has been off the menu for some time.

Whereas "Deep Water" never establishes what Vic is to Melinda, or how Melinda truly feels about Vic. Privately, they sleep in separate beds. In public, and in front of Vic, Melinda is explicitly amorous with an assortment of younger men she introduces as "friends."

Ana de Armas in "Deep Water" (20th Century Studios/Hulu)

"Can somebody please explain Vic's enthusiasm for snails?"

Who can say whether Vic is turned on by her cuckolding. When he inevitably takes his anger too far, is Melinda is aroused by that? Why did these fools get together in the first place? Can somebody please explain Vic's enthusiasm for snails?

You did not misread that – while Melinda's prowling for younger peen, Vic broods in his shed, where he marvels at his mucus-gushing friends' ability to follow their mates up 12-foot walls, guided by their scent. Everybody needs a hobby, but this one is decidedly . . . not hot.

Nineteen years ago, "Gigli" gave us Affleck as Larry Gigli, a mobster who teams up with Jennifer Lopez's Convenient Lesbian Ricki to kidnap a developmentally disabled man named Brian (played by the neurotypical and, I'm sure, very regretful Justin Bartha) whose brother is a federal prosecutor pursuing charges against a mob boss played by Al Pacino. (Why, Al?)


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Most of the film involves Lopez's Ricki spurning the advances of Affleck's goon, whose idea of sweet talk involves lines like this: "In every relationship, there's a bull and a cow. It just so happens that in this relationship we're in right here, with me and you, I'm the bull. You're the cow!" and "There's your bull! There's the horn!"  

Eventually she's so moved by his sexual frustration and prose that she rides poor Larry in a scene that's mainly gross, not merely on principle but, and crucially, because of Larry Gigli's oily foulness.

Before "Gigli," People named Affleck 2002's Sexiest Man Alive. Post-"G," he was lucky to settle down with Jennifer Garner for a more than a decade of marriage, fatherhood and comfortable coffee runs to the local Dunkin' Donuts.

What he couldn't do was re-launch himself as a Hollywood zaddy, because the onscreen relationship between Affleck's dollar-bin gangster and Lopez's Ricki puts off such a stink that it asphyxiated the actor's erotogenic charisma.

Despite this, and since the furor died down, Affleck proven his talent and appeal in other roles, especially that of director.

Following a string of after-"Gigli" flops, he returned with 2007s "Gone Baby Gone" which, along 2010's "The Town," deserve the acclaim they received. His 2012 opus "Argo," which he directed, produced and starred in, won three Oscars, including Best Picture. Even "The Last Duel," that medieval odd duck Affleck co-wrote with his best bro Matt Damon, works because they enlisted Nicole Holofcener to assist with the script and outsourced directing responsibilities to Ridley Scott.

When he has a direct personal investment in his projects, he generally hits it out of the park.

It's when he trusts his career to the reputations of others that he wanders into . . . let's call it difficulty. Not necessarily failure, understand; his starring role in 2021's "The Tender Bar," directed by George Clooney, is solidly adequate. Apparently he was even better in "The Way Back," a 2020 sports drama about a working-class guy who claws his way to redemption by coaching high school basketball.

None of these roles are remotely sensual. But they are in Affleck's wheelhouse, even "Last Duel," in which he slips on a part that plays into how people perceive him at his very worst.

Ben Affleck in "Deep Water" (20th Century Studios/Hulu)And one understands the draw "Deep Water" might have had for him. The script was co-written by Sam Levinson ("Euphoria") and it's the first movie "Fatal Attraction" and "Flashdance" director Adrian Lyne has helmed since "Unfaithful," another erotic thriller.

In that 2002 movie, Richard Gere is the cheated-upon husband, and Diane Lane plays the wife who steps out on him. By then Gere's image had shifted from his early days as a sex symbol to that of a silver fox and devoted human rights activist; even so, he met Lane's subterranean well of hot passion with his own spice, in the way a vintage hunk would play a man in a moribund marriage.

But Affleck never had a chance to sell us that side of him and has probably missed his opportunity to claim an era-appropriate version of such a fantasy. That's probably just well, since his restart with Lopez appears to be holding up and, this time, is more of a curious fascination than chum for the paparazzi frenzy in the way it was two decades ago. Romantics wouldn't be misguided to root for these crazy kids.

But romantic movie fans would be nuts to wager their time on any movie casting him as an object of desire. That gondola sunk nearly 20 years ago, destroyed by a film whose title rhymes with the next best declaration of disbelief after the word "why":  "Really?"

"Deep Water" is currently streaming on Hulu. Watch the trailer below, via YouTube.

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Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Ana De Armas Ben Affleck Commentary Deep Water Gigli Hulu Jennifer Lopez Movies