Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Review: "Live By Night"

“Live By Night” is Ben Affleck’s conscious attempt to recreate the look and feel of an Old Hollywood crime drama with a modern frosting of sex and violence. It’s an overstuffed, messy narrative filled with a lot of terrific actors and strong scenes lacking connective tissue.

This movie is Full Boat Affleck: in addition to starring as a Boston Irish mobster transplanted to Tampa Bay to run their Prohibition Era operations, he also directs, produces and adapted the novel by Dennis Lehane.

All I can say is Affleck certainly knows how to shoot himself as a director, and how to shoot himself in the foot as a screenwriter.

Cary Grant himself would have to admit how dapper Affleck looks in this movie, his dark, chiseled features set off by 1920s costumes and backdrops. Robert Richardson’s photography recalls the best of the film noir tradition while employing diffuse colors and slanted light.

The story is… the sort of thing you get trying to cram a 400-page book into a two-hour movie. Though I haven’t read Lehane’s book, from what I’ve gathered it seems Affleck tried to follow the novel pretty closely, ejecting only a brief sojourn to Cuba. He would have done better to scale down the sheer number of secondary characters and tertiary plot lines.

Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, the son of a Boston police captain who went bad and became a thief. He runs into trouble when he romances the moll (Sienna Miller) of his boss, a pugnacious fellow named Albert White (Robert Glenister). A few hops and skips of the plot later, and after a stint in prison, Joe finds himself sent down to Ybor City, Fla., to take over the illicit liquor operations of his new Italian mob masters.

Joe and his partner, Dion (an excellent Chris Messina), soon put the locals on notice that there’s a new boss in town, offing some low-level hicks and even befriending the local sheriff (Chris Cooper), a deeply religious man who compartmentalizes his faith with the desire to keep the peace. Joe falls for a vivacious Cuban expat, Graciella (Zoe Saldana), and soon it seems like his snake-eyes luck is starting to change.

But challenges always abound, including pushback from a vicious local leader of the Klan (Matthew Maher), who just happens to be the sheriff’s kin. And the Italians up north aren’t satisfied that the booze business is booming, but want Joe to branch out into gambling, prostitution, drugs, etc. That means stepping on more toes in his new beachside paradise.

Elle Fanning plays the sheriff’s daughter, who gets used up in a bad way when she tries to make a go in showbiz, and returns to town preaching about the evils of men like Joe in a series of burgeoning tent revivals. One of the film’s main problems is that even though his character seems to be at the center of Joe’s thicket of problems, Chris Cooper doesn’t actually get a lot of screen time to flesh out his conflict.

We pretty much know where all this is heading, so it’s just a matter of drinking in the atmosphere and encounters before the movie winds up where it will. Lehane’s work tends to start in tragedy, then wander around a bit before returning home.

There are a lot of great puzzle pieces in “Live By Night,” but it feels like there’s too many and they don’t always fit together.

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