Once again awards season is rolling around, and a person named Affleck is reaping accolades. But this is 2016, the topsy-turviest year on recent record, so the Affleck who’ll likely score an Academy Award nod is not Ben Affleck but younger brother Casey. (Sexual harassment accusations notwithstanding, he is unreasonably good in “Manchester-by-the-Sea.”) The irony, of course, is that the older Affleck is also releasing a film this season: “Live by Night,” an adaptation of the 2012 eponymous Dennis Lehane novel. That Big Ben’s first directorial effort since 2012’s Oscar-winning “Argo” is receiving very little publicity is surprising – at least, unless you’ve seen it.
To be fair, this Prohibition-era drama is not exactly bad. Set in a crime underbelly of Massachusetts, it’s tried-and-true territory for the native Bostonian, who in 2007 adapted Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone and has set two other films in the region. But the whole endeavor feels disappointingly by the numbers, perhaps because Ben (Casey is not associated with the film) seems intent on creating an instant classic, a period picture with “Scarface” grit and golden Hollywood glamour, complete with speakeasies, flappers, and Tommy guns. The result feels more like a facsimile of a facsimile – blurry and haplessly un-emphatic.
Affleck stars as Joe Coughlin, the crooked son of a Boston police chief. Since serving in World War I, he’s been skeptical of straight life and unwilling to kiss any rings. Working as an “independent contractor” for local mobs battling it out over bootlegging turf, he lands in a prison hospital after being caught out with Emma (Sienna Miller, in yet another thankless role), the moll of Irish gangster Albert (Robert Glenister). When he finishes serving time, he vows to avenge his apparently slayed girlfriend (she’s mysteriously gone missing), and starts running rum for the Italian mafia in Tampa, flanked by second-in-command Dion (Chris Messina, proving he can enliven anything).
But Florida is not just a far cry from Massachusetts geographically, and Joe finds himself trodding on all kinds of Southern sensibilities – especially KKK ones. Soon after setting up shop down there, he takes up with Cuban immigrant and smuggler Graciella Suarez (Zoe Saldana), which makes him a target of Klansman RD Pruitt (Matthew Maher), the brother-in-law of local sheriff Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper). To establish dominance, Joe gathers dirt on Figgis’s daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning), whose bid at stardom has resulted in a turn in the porn industry and heroin addiction. Returning shakily from Hollywood on her father’s arm, she transforms into a Christian bride of Frankenstein whose wildly well-attended sermons against booze and gambling make local authorities nervous about giving Joe the go-ahead to set up a planned casino. The message from cosa nostra brass is unambiguous – lose the broad! – but our hero’s not so sure.
Joe, it seems, has a code – one that endorses sleeping with other men’s women but excludes racism and the execution of holy rollergirls – so he and Graciella begin to take heat from all sides. But even with such scalding topics as immigration and institutionalized bigotry, we feel no refracted heat. Until now, Affleck has been more than a serviceable director, one who has refined his craft with each new release. But the best thing we can say about this film is that it’s pretty but dumb.
The problem isn’t just Lehane’s mealy-mouthed, overstuffed story but Affleck himself. As both gangster and helmer, he reads as more of a middle manager than a don – one who is aiming for Clint Eastwood cool but settles for businessman casual. His Joe is meant to be steely and subtly conflicted, but the tabloid star is such a natural ham that he just seems sulky and shut down, like a manchild who’s received coal in his stocking. The pacing follows suit, and just as tension should be boiling over, the plot powers down, leaving us with a handful of codas that don’t deliver as they should. Too, though Saldana performs admirably, Graciella loses the maverick magic she’s accorded in the novel, and her revolutionary impulses are reduced to “nice lady causes.”
With swank production design by Jess Gonchor and cinematography by Robert Richardson, “Live by Night” is always easy on the eyes, especially when it shifts out of the cold climes of New England into the bright pastels of the tropics. But though this season is uncharacteristically low on crime releases, I’d recommend seeing an old Elmore Leonard or James Ellroy adaptation instead – not to mention one of the classic MGM gangster pics to which “Live by Night” aspires. This baby largely shoots blanks.
This was originally published on Signature.