Live By Night
Director: Ben Affleck
Writers: Ben Affleck
Stars: Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Chris Cooper
Review by Mike DeAngelo:
Let’s get this all out of the way at the top – I don’t hate Ben Affleck. In fact, I probably like Ben Affleck more than most, as nearly everyone I talk to seems to really dislike the man. Since taking his career into his own hands with his excellent directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone (2007), the quality of the films he chooses to act in or direct have dramatically improved. I’ve enjoyed The Town, The Company Men, Gone Girl, Argo, The Accountant, and yes, even Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice (give the Ultimate Edition a shot, folks). The man has been working very hard to take the reins and make up for the first half of his career, which was filled with a litany of universally despised films (to name a few - Phantoms, Forces of Nature, Bounce, Pearl Harbor, Daredevil, Jersey Girl, Paycheck, and the infamous Gigli).
This is especially true about his directorial efforts: Gone Baby Gone, The Town, & Argo. You can tell that he wants to be taken seriously by how meticulously he directs these movies. While Gone Baby Gone and The Town were critically praised & commercially successful, Argo was the movie that legitimized Affleck’s career again by winning him a best picture trophy at the Academy Awards in 2013. While I would contend that Argo is the weakest of his three directorial efforts, it succeeded in a year that lacked any real stand-out competition. So, with that, Affleck had his pick of the directorial litter – this time choosing to adapt a novel he’d fallen in love with by author Dennis Lehane (who also wrote Gone Baby Gone) called Live By Night about the rise of a fictional prohibition-era gangster in 1920/30’s Florida.
Seeing as it was a period crime drama with a powerhouse director and cast, there was a lot of academy awards buzz while the film was in production; however, as festival screenings occurred, that chatter seemed to nearly die off completely. I can now say I sort of understand why that happened. That’s not to say that Live By Night is the return of old Affleck or even a bad movie – it’s just not quite up to snuff with his more recent films or other period gangster dramas, in general.
Despite it not working completely, there’s actually a lot to applaud in Live By Night. The movie is well-acted, competently directed, and beautifully shot. You can tell the studio gave Affleck a little more money to work with this time around due to his Oscar pedigree. Cinematographer Robert Richardson & Affleck used that money to shoot the crap out of this movie, and it is pretty.
Affleck also recruited a top notch supporting cast for this one. To my surprise, the stand-out of the movie for me was Chris Messina (The Mindy Project, Argo, The Newsroom), who plays Affleck’s buffoonish right hand man, Dion Bartolo. Not only was Messina able to deliver some much-needed comic relief, he was surprisingly great in his few little dramatic beats. Elle Fanning also does an excellent job as the teenage aspiring actress turned religious fanatic, Loretta Figgis.
Another mark in the “good stuff” column would be the excellent action scenes. While there aren’t as many as the trailers would lead you to believe, the few chases and shoot-outs are well-paced and kinetically shot without making the movie feel too modern for the setting.
The script probably could have used one more pass, as the structure felt a bit off, even with the slow pace. The couple political moments also felt a bit heavy handed and preachy, even if you agree with his agenda.
The biggest gripe I have with the film is that the story isn’t terribly engrossing. I don’t know if the book was like this or if the story was simply lost in translation. Regardless, it just didn’t work for me on a consistent basis – some moments I was hooked, some moments I was uninterested and checking my watch.
Some of the blandness lands on Affleck’s lead performance, which, while not bad, was a bit ineffectual. I can’t help but wonder if a more engrossing performer (i.e. Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, etc) might have helped smooth out the films wrinkles a little better. When I watch Affleck in this movie, I’m never on the edge of my seat and that may be what this movie needs is a more captivating lead performance. And let’s face it, for all of Affleck’s strengths, you never really think of him when you think of the words “captivating performer.”
Damn…now I really want to see what Tom Hardy would have done with this role. Oh well…
In the end, this movie is Ben Affleck. There’s nothing overtly offensive or bad about it, but it often comes off a bit more bland than intended. If you’re a die-hard Affleck fan, feel free to give it a go with lowered expectations. Otherwise, I’d wait for a rainy day DVD or HBO viewing, as it has some redeeming moments that are actually worth watching.
Current Rotten Tomatoes Score: 33%
Current IMDB Score: 7.3 out of 10
My Score: 6.5 out of 10