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Where Does Ben Affleck “Argo” From Here?

February 28, 2013

Hey, Ben Affleck, you just won the Best Picture Oscar for Argo—what are you going to do next? “I’m going back to Beantown!” Well, that’s not quite what he said in his acceptance speech, but it’s true: Affleck has announced that his next directorial project will be Live by Night, an adaptation of a Denis Lehane crime novel that will take him back to his home turf of Boston, site of his first two films Gone Baby Gone (also based on a Lehane novel) and The Town. In some ways, that might seem to be a step back after the more artistically and geographically sprawling Iran-hostage rescue drama, but I respect him for passing up more lucrative, high-profile opportunities like helming one of Disney’s Star Wars sequels in order to do something more personal. I’ll withhold judgment, since I consider Gone Baby Gone his best film as a director.

That could be because he cast his brother Casey—a better actor than Ben—in the lead role of Gone and left himself out of the film. I’m not saying Ben’s a bad actor, but he’s starred in some really bad movies: Daredevil, Jersey Girl and Gigli among them. He’s also given strong performances, most notably in 2006’s underrated Hollywoodland, as doomed ex-Superman George Reeves. Affleck seemed to identify with a guy who was chewed up and spit out by the studio system, but unlike Reeves, Affleck has written a second act for himself as a filmmaker.

Affleck’s limitations as an actor are on full display in his next star vehicle, Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder. I got a sneak peek at the film, which I’ll be writing about in next month’s “On Demand” column for TV Guide Magazine, since it’ll be released simultaneously on VOD and in theaters in April.  For fans of Malick’s The Tree of LifeI was not among them—it’ll feel pleasantly familiar. It’s another non-linear, artsy-fartsy tale of an unhappy small-town marriage. In this case, it’s an American (Affleck) who falls in love with a French woman (Olga Kurylenko) in Paris and brings her back to his Kansas hamlet. What follows is a meditation on love and faith, more accessible (and shorter) than Tree of Life but still stubbornly opaque. Javier Bardem broods as a self-doubting priest, and Rachel McAdams pops in as a devout Catholic who reunites romantically with Affleck when he’s estranged from Kurylenko. At times, it feels like the world’s longest and most expensive ad for ChristianMingle.com.

The trouble is, Affleck is such an inexpressive actor (his somewhat stilted lead performance was the weakest part of Argo) that we never begin to understand why his relationships go sour. Maybe the scenes explaining that got left on the cutting-room floor, along with the performances of Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Barry Pepper, Michael Sheen and Amanda Peet. No wonder it took five people to edit this movie!

Perhaps Affleck’s next movie will unleash him as an actor. Runner, Runner casts him opposite Gemma Arterton (like Kurylenko, an ex-Bond girl) and Justin Timberlake in a tense tale of high stakes and high finance. Director Brad Furman energized Matthew McConaughey’s acting career with 2010’s The Lincoln Lawyer, so one can only hope he’ll do the same for Affleck. At this pinnacle of his success, his projects should be more than just—to name-check one of his most forgettable flicks—a Paycheck.

What should Ben Affleck do next? More acting, directing or both? Post a comment!

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