NEW YORK – 'Gigli' didn't just bomb at the box office this weekend - it nuked. And the noxious fall-out may mean Ben and Jen will never work together again.
The movie industry was abuzz yesterday over "Gigli's" abysmal $3.8 million weekend box-office take - a mere fraction of the $54 million the movie cost to make and an embarrassing one-third of what analysts had forecast.
And the verdict is in: While the careers of Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck will bounce back from this turkey, they should think twice before pairing up on screen again anytime soon.
"They'll probably be forgiven for 'Gigli' to an extent," says Brandon Gray, president of box-office tracking firm Box Office Mojo. "It'll be like a blip, because it's not their usual kind of movie."
Gitesh Pandaya, editor of BoxOfficeGuru.com, agrees that both are still bankable stars - in the right movie.
"I think Ben Affleck could do another Tom Clancy movie like 'The Sum of All Fears' and that would work," he says. "Jennifer could do another romantic comedy with another male star - in that formula she does sell tickets.
"But I don't think they should do a film together for a while."
Even one of the partners in Revolution Studios, which made "Gigli" for Sony Pictures, is advising the turkey-tastic duo to give each other a little more space - on-screen at least.
"Chances are they will not work together again - and they shouldn't by the way," said Revolution's Tom Sherak.
Alas, this sensible advice has come too late for one "Bennifer" project - the Kevin Smith-directed "Jersey Girl."
The omnipresent power couple play husband and wife in the movie, slated for release March 19, 2004. The advance buzz on film-fan Web sites - while nowhere near as bad as it was for "Gigli" - is not good.
For example, one posting on aint-it-cool-news.com reads: "Jenny from the Bland is truly a train wreck in this movie ... She just sucks."
One consolation? Spoiler alert: Lopez's character dies early on, and Affleck reportedly puts in a good showing for the rest of this romantic drama.
Director Smith has already come out fighting in defense of his film, posting the following message on his personal Web site yesterday: "I'm sorry that 'Gigli' didn't do better this weekend, [but] its critical reaction and [box-office] take won't have the slightest effect on 'Jersey Girl.' Take my word for it."
Smith also took issue with the savagery of critics' reviews for "Gigli."
"The movie, like Ben and Jen, are just victims of a particularly nasty little backlash," he writes. "The sheer naked aggression is astounding."
Industry watchers were yesterday advising Jen and Ben to stay out of the limelight.
"It would definitely be smart for them to lay low for a while," Pandaya says. "They should not do interviews, not appear on 'Dateline' or with Barbara Walters, let people get this bad taste out of their mouths."
Robert Bucksbaum, president of box-office tracking firm ReelSource, said the box-office results showed that the public and media fascination with the couple had backfired: "The public has been reading about their romance for the past two years, so why do they need to see it again on the big screen?"
At least they're not together at the moment - Lopez is on set with Richard Gere making "Shall We Dance" in Winnipeg, Canada, while Affleck is putting the finishing touches to 'Paycheck' with Uma Thurman in Vancouver.
"The tactic is always the same - just do a great movie then everyone forgets about the disaster!" says veteran publicist Bobby Zarem.
Affleck's spokesman, Ken Sunshine, was defiant last night. "Ben's got three terrific movies already completed and he's looking at many, many promising scripts," Sunshine told The Post. "Everybody should have the problems he has."