Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Robert Glenister, Titus Welliver, Remo Girone, Max Casella, Miguel, Gianfranco Terrin, Anthony Michael Hall, Chris Sullivan, Derek Mears, J.D. Evermore, Clark Gregg
Written by: Ben Affleck, based on a novel by Dennis Lehane
Directed by: Ben Affleck
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity
Running Time: 128
Date: 01/13/2017

Live by Night (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

'Live' Through This

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Last month, hints of Ben Affleck's new Live by Night, which opens this week in Bay Area theaters, began to drop, with the assumption that it was going to be a late-hour awards contender.

After all, Affleck's commendable career as a director had already yielded three Oscar-worthy films, Gone Baby Gone (2007), The Town (2010), and Argo (2012), the latter of which took home three statues, including Best Picture.

But Live by Night has now slipped into theaters without a stir. And the reason, regrettably, is that it's unexpectedly lifeless.

Affleck adapted the screenplay from a novel by Dennis Lehane, a choice that served him well on the excellent Gone Baby Gone.

Live by Night is a standard-issue gangster film, perhaps of the type that were made in the 1930s and 1940s, after Little Caesar launched Edward G. Robinson to stardom and before White Heat upped the ante with a swaggering, suffering James Cagney.

Affleck's Joe Coughlin begins dallying with a gangster's moll (Sienna Miller), is beaten to a pulp, goes to prison after a robbery, works for a rival gangster, moves to Florida, gets rich from demon rum, and faces his greatest challenge when he tries to open a casino.

He also becomes involved with a dark-skinned local woman (Zoe Saldana), which raises the ire of the local KKK.

Chris Cooper plays a Florida police chief whose daughter (Elle Fanning) becomes a small celebrity, preaching about the evils of sin, after having experienced it herself in (gasp!) California.

Live by Night has a great deal of plot, and it all just trickles by, without much tension, nor any build-up-and-release. It could be that Affleck was hoping for a Godfather-like film, with moments of stirring quiet, but it's really more sluggish.

This effect could possibly be traced back to Affleck's performance; he goes still and stoic, perhaps hoping the audience will see Joe Coughlin's wheels turning, but instead he's a blank. He doesn't pop.

It doesn't help that Affleck, buffed up for Batman, simply looks like a huge rectangle in his period suits; they don't fit him well, and he frequently looks awkward.

Affleck can be a fine actor — he was the only thing keeping last summer's bloated bummer Batman v Superman afloat — and his work here seems like more of a miscalculation than a lack of skill.

But it's fruitless. Today's directors, Scorsese, De Palma, Coppola, Cronenberg, Tarantino, and the Coen brothers, have escalated the gangster genre to an exciting high art, which, unfortunately, has nullified the need for "ordinary" gangster pictures. Live by Night is as ordinary as they come.

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