Ben Affleck is no doubt an ambitious and tasteful filmmaker, but he’s gotten himself in a bit of hot water with the bloated period gangster epic “Live by Night.” It looks and sounds right, and all the elements are there: a conflicted anti-hero with a granite jaw; a fast-talkin’, two-timin’ moll; crooked cops; and a sweaty, loyal partner.
There’s the one-last-job-gone-awry, some rum-running, a few epic shootouts and the big questions about whether our man has become everything he swore he wouldn’t. It seems like enough to hold audience interest for a few hours, but somehow, even with all that going for it (not to mention a parade of recognizable faces), “Live by Night” is dull as sin.
The story is adapted by Affleck from a Dennis Lehane novel of the same name. Lehane is the author of the source material for some good to great films like “Mystic River,” “Shutter Island” and Affleck’s first stab at directing, “Gone Baby Gone.” It was a decent gamble that “Live by Night” would be pretty good, too.
Affleck has put himself front and center here as the lead, Joe Coughlin, a once-good man who became jaded after serving in World War I. He came back to his hometown of Boston, where his father (Brendan Gleeson) is the police chief, with the intention of never answering to anyone. We don’t ever see Joe as a stand-up citizen, only robbing banks and sleeping with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the mistress of the town’s most notorious mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister).
Naturally as soon as Emma and Joe decide to skip town and find a new life somewhere warm (where they come so close to saying that they’ll “live by night” it’s almost annoying that they don’t), things take a turn and Joe is left beaten to a pulp, imprisoned and alone. When he gets out, revenge against White is the only thing on his mind, so he heads to Florida to work for a rival.
While the Boston scenes are paint-by-numbers gangster pic, with a few gorgeous shots thanks to cinematographer Robert Richardson, in Florida at least the plot gets somewhat interesting as Joe pairs up with a nearly unrecognizable Chris Messina as Dion Bartolo to get in the Prohibition-era rum business while butting heads with the local KKK thugs, a complicated cop (Chris Cooper) and his troublesome evangelist daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning). Oh, and Joe also falls in love with a Cuban expat Graciela (Zoe Saldana).
By the time Loretta becomes the main focus, and foe, of Joe and Dion, the film has already lost most of its steam. “Live by Night” wants to be about everything – capitalism, racism, the American dream, the hypocrisy of the good and moral – while also providing shoot-’em-up thrills. It’s hard to do that when you don’t even care for or about any of the characters, though. In fact, there are so many characters and so much story (not to mention at least four false endings) that it wouldn’t be surprising if there exists a better three-hour version of this.
Affleck may have done his film a disservice by making himself the star. On-screen the generally effortlessly charismatic Affleck seems to be sleepwalking through the movie – with the exception of his moments with Miller’s Gould. He looks out of place and uncomfortable most of the time, and the distractingly ill-fitting jackets don’t help.
It was always going to be a tricky thing to follow up a smash like “Argo,” so taut and smart and thrilling. Affleck went maximalist with “Live by Night,” and it was, indeed, too much.
Live by Night
Cast: Ben Affleck, Brendan Gleeson, Sienna Miller, Robert Glenister, Elle Fanning, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper and Chris Messina
Director: Ben Affleck
Rated R (strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity)