Big surprise: Gigli ain't half bad! After all the hype, public slobbering and conspicuous consumption of "Jen and Ben," I, like everyone else, wanted to hate this one. And, what with the script having J-Lo hoisting that famous posterior in the air and Affleck swatting down gay rumors, the film certainly leaves itself open to easy ridicule.

However, all things considered, and in spite of nearly every potential cinematic pitfall you can think of, the film delivers a satisfying, endearing romance and is one of the better of La Lopez's oeuvre. Looking radiant, she plays a supremely self-confident lesbian, Ricki, and is pretty convincing as a type of especially hot tomboy Latina. Writer-director Martin Brest doesn't unduly tax her limited histrionic abilities and wisely gives her showcasing monologues about martial arts, other Zen-related topics and one jaw-dropping soliloquy extolling the vagina, rather than more demanding acting bits involving her co-players. Affleck's titular character is more difficult to pull off. Playing a slightly thuggish goodfella doesn't particularly suit him, but he wins you over anyway, with more charm than he has ever displayed, largely due to the good-natured way he takes all of Ricki's gay-baiting and the slow personal discovery of his own inner woman.

What has its own studio running scared and many of our more doltish critics crowing is the fact that, instead of some glossy, b.o-targeted Hollywood romantic caper, this is a very small-scale character study, a close American studio approximation to a European art film or psyche-driven indie. After fluffy crap like The Wedding Planner or Maid in Manhattan, it's nice to see Lopez given a real person to play, rather than some yuppie creative's idea of a "proper" commercial image for her. Brest (Midnight Run, Beverly Hills Cop) knows a thing or two about character development on the run and, except for a deadening scene involving the impossibly weird Christopher Walken, has shaped his film craftily. (Al Pacino also pops up, again screaming at the top of his lungs. The man should be made to watch his masterpiece Dog Day Afternoon, in which he was not only brilliant, but quiet, and gave possibly the best performance of a gay man in film history.)

The stars aside, however, the entire show is stolen by Justin Bartha as Brian, the mentally challenged kid Gigli and Ricki kidnap for ransom. In his first film, the young actor takes what could have easily been a total movie-wrecker of a character (Rain Man, oy!) and does something so original, so fresh and irresistibly lovable with it that this surely ranks as one of the screen's great debuts. Bartha is the wild card which makes Gigli cook in a way to throw down a real challenge to even its harshest critics.

--David Noh