In Affleck’s ‘Live By Night,’ everyone is good except for star
Any random scene of “Live By Night” could easily give the impression that it’s a very good film, because there’s nothing wrong with it scene by scene.
The problems are cumulative in nature.
A moment comes when you might ask yourself, “Why am I watching this?” And that’s when a question becomes its own answer.
The film is the story of a Prohibition era mobster in Tampa, a man traumatized and embittered by his World War I experience, a crook with a conscience. Ben Affleck directed and adapted the screenplay from Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name, and he cast himself in the lead role, as actors-directors sometimes will. But I didn’t believe in Affleck as a veteran, or in the veteran’s trauma or bitterness, or in his crookedness.
His conscience, however, is believable and Affleck’s performance is enjoyable, which isn’t nothing. Yet with his perfect haircut and clothes, and his blank, trying-to-look-tough expression, Affleck seems less like the real thing in “Live By Night” and more like a wealthy person attending a Thirties’ gangster theme party. This makes it impossible for the film to achieve its goal, as a grand epic and a great American story, because you need a grand character for that and a great American performance.
What we have instead is a decent story, with enough interest to keep audiences in their chairs, and with an occasional scene that lights up and reminds us that Affleck can be quite a good director. In fact, as the other actors feel more at home in the period milieu than Affleck does, one must wonder how “Live By Night” might have fared with brother Casey Affleck in the lead. The trauma, the bitterness, the crookedness, the conscience - these all might have been second nature - and we already know Casey can seem tough, from his starring role in brother Ben’s directorial debut, “Gone, Baby, Gone.”
In any case, it’s Ben Affleck here as Joe, who gets out of the war determined not to play by anyone’s rules. In Boston, he becomes a bank robber and all-purpose criminal, but he avoids getting involved with either the Irish or Italian gangs. He’s too smart for that, but he’s not too smart to get involved with a crime boss’s girlfriend (Sienna Miller), nor to take her out in public. That kind of recklessness, deriving either from orneriness, idiocy, or pure sexual desperation, is hard to believe from Affleck, whose essence is more that of cold-blooded opportunist.
By a circuitous route, Joe ends up in Tampa, as the Boston mob’s representative, where he is charged with cornering the Florida rum business during Prohibition. The movie’s presentation of a northerner down south seems very much a 21st century vision of an earlier time, with Joe suddenly standing in for modernity, secularism and egalitarianism.
He gets into a relationship with a black Cuban woman (Zoe Saldana) and must deal with the Ku Klux Klan’s muscling in on his business - and their saying nasty things about his girlfriend.
There’s also an interlude in which evangelicals are trying to shut down a gambling house before it opens.
These pre-echoes of the red state/blue state divide are hardly repellent but seem forced. Yet even so, Matthew Maher, as a whacked out Klansman, is arresting in two memorable scenes, and Affleck does beautiful work with Elle Fanning, in a scene in which she confesses that she’s not sure that she believes in God, even though she has become a tent-show revival preacher.
Affleck just hands the scenes to them, and they take them and do great things. In the case of Fanning, Affleck gives her a series of penetrating close-ups that give you a privileged glimpse into a young woman’s odd charm and inner turmoil.
Chris Messina (“The Mindy Project”) finally gets to play an Italian and a hard case as Affleck’s friend and henchman, and he opens up brand new casting possibilities for himself.
Actually, here’s the truth, and it says something impressive about Affleck, because he directed every one of these people, and he’s the one who approved the cut: Everybody is good in this movie, except him.
That includes Miller and Saldana and Remo Girone and Robert Glenister as the Italian and Irish mob bosses, respectively. Everyone gets a chance to shine, while Affleck stands around looking too tall, too handsome, too 21st century, too tailored, too rational and too soft.
Yes, even too soft to play a guy who is thought of as too soft.
It doesn’t help matters that the movie seems to end three times before it ends, and none of those ends are satisfying.