Vanity projects are a dime a dozen in Hollywood.
Whether it’s to make some kind of personal statement or just to scratch a particular creative itch, who’s to say what attracts a filmmaker to a given project? In Ben Affleck’s case, the motivation behind Live by Night seemed to be little more than to reteam with Gone Baby Gone author Dennis Lehane. Lightning struck the first time, right? As pulpy crime sagas go, this is a visually striking piece of work. However, the story’s episodic nature and lackadaisical musings on life leaves the film ultimately feeling a bit pointless.
It’s the Roaring ‘20s, and Boston is in the grips of a destructive turf war between the Irish Gang and the Italian Mafia. Joe Coughlin (Affleck) is a small-time crook who owes no allegiance to either, but is caught in between when he’s found having an affair with the Irish boss’ main squeeze, Emma (Sienna Miller). Italian boss Pescatore (Remo Girone) sends Joe down to Tampa to take over the rum racket and force the Irish operation out of Florida. In doing so, Joe runs afoul of Tampa police chief Figgis (Chris Cooper), his religious daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning), Irish boss Albert White (Robert Glenister), and also the Ku Klux Klan, just in case you forgot this movie took place in the South.
Based on Lehane’s novel, Live by Night feels like a sprawling gangster epic reshaped to fit into a bog standard three-act structure. The film opens with a couple of explosive action sequences, moves at a rapid clip through a long second act of plot devices and one-note character development, and finally crescendos in a showstopping battle between three factions of gangsters. The film features myriad details and minor characters that barely earn a spare moment for the audience to savor. Chief among these are Graciella (Zoe Saldana) and Esteban (Miguel J. Pimentel), Cuban siblings who run a legitimate business selling the rum Joe’s gang produces. Joe becomes romantically entangled with Graciella, but aside from the rare quiet moment in which she compels Joe to refrain from cruelty, Zoe Saldana barely registers in the film at all.
The lion’s share of the screen time goes to Affleck and Affleck alone.
We’re treated to at least a dozen scenes in which Joe stares out at breathtaking vistas while pondering the course of his life and praying he may someday find happiness. Joe Coughlin is a character whose drive and desire for independence clearly speaks to Affleck as a filmmaker, but his performance feels distracted. He seems to stroll through the film without giving the character or his circumstances a second thought. When he’s not halfheartedly moaning his way through the sullen loner routine he’s forcing a half-cocked grin, playing Joe like a guy who knows how totally lucky he is to not be six feet under just yet.
These scenes, noble in their intention, are undercut by the fact that half the time Ben Affleck is obviously staring into a green screen two feet in front of his face, or pretending not to notice as CGI snow swirls around his head. As gorgeous as Robert Richardson’s cinematography often is, it betrays the cheapness of the production. Too many scenes take place in the dark of night or in cramped corridors to mask the need for backdrops. Everything not bathed in darkness looks a little too clean; the suits and fedoras clearly brand new, as though characters in every scene had just gotten back from the tailor. These are minor quibbles, of course, but they add up to a film whose visual design reminds one of community theatre.
The most compelling aspect of the film is its setting. Affleck uses his 1920s deep South setting as an opportunity to have his cast utter every racial slur in the book. When Joe arrives in Florida, his partner Dion (Chris Messina) gives him the rundown of every ethnic faction in town and which other faction they hate the most. It’s amusing at first, but we soon realize there are people that take this intolerance stuff deadly serious. RD Pruett (Matthew Maher) saunters onto the scene spouting bigotry and hate like it’s the natural order of things. Joe butts heads with RD not because he besmirched Graciella’s good name, but because Joe is smart enough to realize that bigotry is bad for business. The film ultimately comes around to the idea that the real heroes here are the gang of Irish mutts, Italian defectors and assorted opportunists leftover after ethnic squabbling takes its toll. Joe’s gang becomes a microcosm of the American melting pot, a stew of disparate elements coming together to achieve the same goal.
It’s clear that Affleck wanted Live by Night to be his Miller’s Crossing, full of inscrutable dialects, a serpentine plot, gangs pitted against one another, the whole nine yards. It’s an admirable effort, and fun enough in the moment, but Affleck is not nearly the craftsman the Coens are. He’s shown before that he can spin a compelling yarn, but his reach exceeds his grasp on this one. This is a story begging for the multi-part, prestige television treatment. Squeezing it down into two hours and putting so much of the heavy lifting on Affleck’s shoulders does the story no favors.Liked This? Share It!