Dave Karger
November 10, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

”I can tell you unequivocally,” Ben Affleck says between drags on one of many Camel Lights, ”that Gwyneth and I are not going out. We’re not a couple. We’re not an item.”

There, that’s it, the end. Now we can just print six pages of pictures.

Oh, if only it were that simple. For those of you who haven’t stood in a supermarket checkout line lately, let us explain. Since they were fixed up by friends three years ago, Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow have been hands down Hollywood’s most confusing twosome, defying observers to figure out if they’re just pals or full-on lovebirds. The time line goes something like this: Fall 1997, they begin dating; March 1998, Affleck wins an Oscar for Good Will Hunting; spring 1998, they shoot Shakespeare in Love; January 1999, they break up; March 1999, Paltrow wins an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love.

But then it gets strange. After the alleged split, mounting evidence suggests that perhaps things hadn’t exactly cooled down. They seemed more than friendly at this year’s Miramax pre-Oscars bash. In late September, photos surfaced of the pair canoodling in Paris. And if that wasn’t damning enough, they’ve gone and made another movie together, a love story no less. With lots of kissing and even a sex scene. Now what are we supposed to think?

We could focus instead on the plot of their new romantic drama, Bounce: Obnoxious advertising exec Buddy (Affleck) gives his plane ticket to a stranger, who dies when the aircraft crashes; a year later, guilt-ridden Buddy checks up on the man’s widow, Abby (Paltrow), and they fall in love, though he can’t bring himself to tell her that he was responsible for her husband’s death. But let’s face it: Most of the people who’ll line up for Bounce will be there not to see Buddy and Abby, but Ben and Gwyneth — or, as some of the publicists circling the film refer to them, Benneth. And they’ll wonder: Is this what the pair were like in real life? Or what they are like in real life? ”The irony of course is that it’s not what our relationship was like at all,” says Affleck. ”Eventually people, I think, will get sick of [speculating].” That’s fine with us — just finish reading this story first.

One crisp fall afternoon, the male half of Benneth sits in a hotel lobby near his downtown Manhattan apartment, scarfing down fried calamari and remembering the day in early 1999 when Paltrow surprised him with a phone call. ”We weren’t even really talking that much. We had broken up and it was in that phase where it’s obviously difficult,” says Affleck, 28, who had just finished trudging through the snow for Reindeer Games and was looking forward to a little R and R.

Paltrow wasn’t calling to say she wanted her favorite sweatshirt back; she’d read a script called Bounce by writer-director Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex) and thought the role of alcoholic Buddy Amaral would be a welcome stretch. ”I’ve always had this ongoing dialogue with Ben about doing stuff that required more of him,” she says. ”When I see something like Armageddon and see him just not connecting, I get sort of like, ‘Yeah, you’re charming… but it’s not what you’re capable of.”’ So, against the advice of her friends and family (”They were like, ‘Don’t do it, it’s going to be a drama”’), Paltrow persuaded her ex-boyfriend to get back together, for make-believe at least.

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