By Jason Lynch
March 29, 2004 12:00 PM

It was just too inviting a target. When she learned that Ben Affleck would be hosting Saturday Night Live on March 13, “Weekend Update” anchor (and head writer) Tina Fey was inspired to write a sketch skewering Affleck’s flop Gigli. “At the read-through, he was surprised that we were doing it,” recalls Fey. “He said, ‘I didn’t see this one before!’ [But] he just went along with it.” The sketch, in which a mentally challenged extra on the Gigli set predicts doom for the film and Affleck insists it will “be a big, big hit,” had the audience—and Affleck himself—howling. Says Fey: “He has a very good sense of humor about himself.”

He’s needed it. Soon after Gigli, the film on which he met girlfriend Jennifer Lopez, became last year’s biggest box office bomb, the couple known as Bennifer began to derail—splitting for good in January, four months after famously canceling their elaborate Santa Barbara wedding. While they are trying to carve out a friendship, keeping in touch with notes and phone calls, Affleck now faces another challenge: pulling his work out from the shadow of his private life. “There is a real downside to having a barrage of personal publicity out there,” says the 31-year-old actor. “It just makes it that much harder for people to forget all that when they’re watching a movie.” The star—who’s weathered recent box office duds Daredevil and Paycheck—is hoping that the comedy-drama Jersey Girl (opening March 26) will remind audiences that the tabloid staple is also a pretty good actor. “After the year he’s had,” says Jersey Girl writer-director Kevin Smith, who launched Affleck’s career in indie flicks such as 1997’s Chasing Amy and produced 1997’s Good Will Hunting, “he deserves a break.”

Jersey Girl centers on Affleck as a slick Manhattan publicist who must raise his 7-year-old daughter (Raquel Castro) in a suburban New Jersey town after he’s widowed by Lopez, who dies 15 minutes into the movie. Affleck today jokes about his defunct relationship, but admits, “There’s a lot of sadness. I go through feelings, thinking about stuff, what could have been different and so on and so forth.” Adds Smith: “He’s just doing what most people do when relationships end. He’s taking stock and shifting priorities.”

That also extends to his professional life. In the wake of his action-hero roles, he’s now yearning for smaller films. “I’ve come to a crossroads,” says Affleck. “For a long time, I wanted to prove some success to somebody, or I was afraid everything would go away.”

Though Lopez has already been linked to singer Marc Anthony, Affleck remains unattached. “You meet somebody and there’s a customary period where you go, ‘So, what do you do? Who did you go out with?’ ” observes Affleck.

“Not only do they already know everything about you, they already have an opinion. So it’s, like, an uphill battle.” The one passion Affleck is indulging is gambling (see box), appearing regularly in celebrity poker tournaments and California casinos, and he’s eager to get back to screenwriting. Soon he’ll head to Europe to work on a new script with Good Will Hunting partner Matt Damon, and he plans to start directing movies as well. Despite the upheaval in his life, one thing has remained constant: his $7 million, 50-acre estate on Georgia’s Hampton Island. While he has been househunting in L.A. (where he had been living with Lopez), he has spent much of his post-Bennifer time in southern solitude. “It’s quiet and meditative for me,” says Affleck. “People there have a very strong sense about people’s privacy—which I like.”

Jason Lynch. Natasha Stoynoff, Mark Dagostino, Amy Longsdorf and Diane Herbst in New York City, Anne Driscoll in Cambridge, Mass., and Sean Daly and Brenda Rodriguez in Los Angeles