Ben Affleck’s career has certainly been a rollercoaster of ups and downs, hasn’t it? He started out strong in Good Will Hunting and Chasing Amy, but lost his way with Pearl Harbor, Daredevil, and of course Gigli. Just when it looked like his career was dead in the water, he got behind the camera and took us all by surprise in Gone Baby Gone. Affleck continued to impress with The Town and the Oscar-winning Argo. Outside of filmmaking, Affleck has also grown as an actor with strong performances in movies like Gone Girl and The Accountant. Heck, he even made Batman v Superman watchable at times.
Although Ben is back on top of the world right now, Live by Night is something of a step backwards for the A-lister. That’s not to say the film is a total loss. Affleck gives a confident performance and he turns in a good-looking movie. Unfortunately, the final product is too familiar, too safe, and quite frankly too dull. While not without a few choice moments, it’s a disappointment considering how well Affleck has been doing as of late.
Although Ben is back on top of the world right now, Live by Night is something of a step backwards for the A-lister.
Affleck stars as Joe Coughlin, an outlaw who doesn’t like to be classified as a gangster. Much to the disapproval of his police captain father (Brendan Gleeson), Joe finds himself committing robberies and sleeping with a notorious mobster’s mistress (Sienna Miller). Robert Glenister is chillingly effective as Albert White, who isn’t pleased to find out that Joe has been fooling around with his girl. Before the big bad mobster can beat him to death, however, Joe winds up behind bars. After getting out of the joint, Joe travels to Florida in hopes of tracking down Albert. In the process, he gets caught up in the world of bootlegging and a rum-running, but still refuses to call himself a gangster.
Live by Night is a commendable ensemble piece to say the least. We get universally effective work from Chris Messina as Joe’s partner in crime, Chris Cooper as a supposedly uncorrectable law enforcer, and Remo Girone as an untouchable mob capo. Elle Fanning is especially memorable as a former heroine addict who seeks redemption by preaching the word of God. The only performer that’s kind of underutilized is Zoe Saldana, who gets stuck in an eye candy role as Joe’s wife.
While Live by Night has all the right tools to make a great gangster epic, Affleck borrows from too many other films. Watching the movie, we’re reminded of The Godfather, Goodfellas, and Once Upon a Time in America, but Affleck doesn’t really leave his own mark. His screenplay additionally gets bogged down with muddled pacing, tedious dialog, and several plotlines that don’t entirely add up. Even the themes regarding the American Dream and the cost of crime feel recycled. Sure, the art direction is stunning, the costumes are gorgeous, and the cinematography is elegant, but there’s nothing new behind the glamor.
While Live by Night has all the right tools to make a great gangster epic, Affleck borrows from too many other films.
It’d be one thing if Live by Night was intended to be a pure popcorn flick, settling for style over substance. At least then maybe we’d have an entertainingly stupid guilty pleasure like Gangster Squad. Affleck clearly has higher ambitions, though. This is one of those movies that you desperately want to like. As hard as you try to get invested, however, you’re more likely to check your watch.