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How DOA is Ben Affleck’s “Live By Night”?

January 10, 2017

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The brilliant Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales once wrote of a short-lived show, “The Gangster Chronicles is so DOA, it makes doornails look frisky.” (I know, because as a 14-year-old, I clipped out his review, underlined that sentence, and kept it in a box under my bed, dreaming that someday I, too, would turn a phrase that beautifully.) Well, Live By Night makes The Gangster Chronicles look like The Godfather.

It must’ve looked great on paper: Ben Affleck, fresh off the Oscar-winning success of Argo,  directs his own adaptation of a novel by Dennis Lehane, just as he did with his hugely promising debut as a filmmaker, Gone Baby Gone (starring his brother Casey, who’s having a much better year, winning every award under the sun for Manchester by the Sea, than Ben is having with Batman v. Superman and this dud). The story starts in Boston, Ben’s old Good Will Hunting turf as well as the setting for Gone Baby Gone and its solid followup The Town. Affleck remains a gifted visual stylist; working with cinematographer Robert Richardson, he stages a bank robbery/car chase and shootout that crackle with electricity. But they’re stand-alone sequences, and soon as they’re over, the story comes to a screeching halt.

So where did it all go wrong? Where to begin? Where movies always begin, with the script. The story of a World War I vet, Joe Dougherty (Affleck), who returns to Beantown and goes against the wishes of his honest-cop father (Brendan Gleeson) to live a life of crime, is quite simply full of beans. Affleck attempts to capture Lehane’s hard-boiled dialogue, but the result is soft-headed. One character is described as “dumb as a grape.” Live By Night is as dumb as a bunch of them. A similar story of Prohibition Era gangsters was told in an infinitely better fashion on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Live By Night should’ve been prohibited.

Gleeson gives the film’s only credible performance, and—SPOILER ALERT—he dies, off-screen, within the first half-hour. The rest of the cast seem to be competing in a bad-acting-off. Chris Messina channels Chico Marx as Joe’s goombah sidekick. The usually great Chris Cooper seems to be parodying his own performance in American Beauty as a corrupt yet self-righteous Tampa sheriff. Two shockingly nondescript actors, Robert Glenister and Remo Girone, are cast in the pivotal roles of warring mob dons, one Irish and one Italian, who fight for what’s left of Joe’s soul. An even more anonymous performer, Matthew Maher (who also appeared in The Town), portrays a Klansman with an apparent hare-lip, and he unintentionally conjures the memory of Elmer Fudd. You half-expect him to say, “Be vewwwy quiet. We’re hunting minorities!”

The women’s roles in the film are as insultingly written as they are poorly executed. Sienna Miller fatally overplays the femme fatale; she’s a moll who double-crosses Joe and sets him up to be killed by the Irish kingpin, yet we’re supposed to believe Joe’s so in love with her that he instantly forgives her, even though we see no traces of genuine affection between them. Zoe Saldana is saddled with the good-wife role; she’s a Black Cuban rum-runner who becomes Joe’s spouse when he relocates to Florida to try and open a casino, and the minute they get together, she becomes a paragon of virtue (once again, we never understand why these two are attracted to each other or what they have in common—we’re just supposed to take Affleck’s word for it that they’re deeply in love). The real doozy, however, is Elle Fanning in a part that is literally both a Madonna and a whore. She’s Cooper’s daughter, who heads to Hollywood seeking stardom and ends up doing porn and heroin. Then she returns home and is whipped by her dad in a scene so twisted it plays like daddy-daughter porn, if there is such a thing (and I’m afraid to find out but there must be). So she becomes an evangelist, showing off her track marks as if they were stigmata, and singlehandedly shuts down Joe’s plans for a gambling empire with her supposedly rabble-rousing tent-revival speeches. Problem is, Fanning is so low-energy (pardon my Trumpism), she barely seems able to keep her eyes open, muchless whip a flock of parishioners into a holy-rolling frenzy.

But the winner of the bad-acting-off, by a mile, is Affleck himself. He barely seems able to keep a straight face when he’s delivering ridiculous lines like, “I have no beef with you, but I don’t truck with gangsters.” Just behind his eyes, you can see a little boy’s glee that he’s getting to do a gangster movie like the ones he grew up watching. Can you imagine Al Pacino in The Godfather or Ray Liotta in GoodFellas delivering such transparently awful work? No, because Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese wouldn’t allow it. But Affleck’s his own director — and his own worst enemy.

There’s a scene in the film when Joe gets kicked so hard in the groin, he instantly vomits. That’s how I felt watching Live by Night. “I’d like to think there’s a God, and He’s kind,” Fanning’s Bible-thumper tells Joe. “Wouldn’t that be swell?” Sure it would, but if there is a God, why would He or She allow such a mortal sin against cinema?

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