Synopsis: A group of Boston-bred gangsters set up shop in balmy Florida during the Prohibition era, facing off against the completion and the Klu Klux Klan.
Stars: Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller, Elle Fanning, Chris Messina, Chris Cooper, Anthony Michael Hall
Director: Ben Affleck
Running Length: 128 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: I’m not going to go into the strange vitriol directed at March’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice but will say that had Live by Night received a larger release in 2016, it would have been the second most mis-understood Ben Affleck film of the year.
There’s going to be a lot of people that don’t like this movie and maybe for good reason. It’s an uneven throwback picture that feels comfortable in its gangster era trappings and broadly drawn characters several tiny degrees removed from Dick Tracy-esque caricatures. It has about twelve endings with only the first three being the least bit satisfying and its director/star traipses around in an array of unintentionally humorous XXL zoot suits and wide brimmed fedoras locking lips with two very different broads. Pushing the limits of two hours, it’s slow (but steady) and a far cry from the slow burn films Affleck has directed previously.
So why the moderately high score, you may ask? Gosh…I just liked it…flaws and all. I’m a big believer in just going with your gut and not letting films like these stew too long in the brain. My advice would be to catch Live by Night when you’re in a forgiving mood and aren’t looking to have your socks totally knocked off. Had Affleck (Gone Girl) not directed as well as starred in this and had it arrived three or four years ago this might have gone down a bit better because the expectations wouldn’t be quite so high.
Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane (an author Affleck has adapted before in Gone Baby Gone), it’s a relatively straight-forward tale of a Depression era small-time crook lured by love into a war between an Irish gangster and an Italian Mafioso. Overseeing a rum-running business during Prohibition, Affleck balances making his boss a mountain of cash while plotting revenge on his enemy for a betrayal years earlier. Oh…and there’s a minor subplot involving the KKK that feels judiciously lifted from another Lehane tome.
With its big budget and handsome production, there’s little question the movie should have been better but what’s there isn’t anything to cry over, either. Affleck doesn’t quite have the emotional well the role calls for but he gives it, as usual, his best effort. It’s Chris Messina (Cake), with fuzzy eyebrows and gnarled up teeth as Affleck’s short fused sidekick, that kept me wondering how the movie would have been had Messina been given the chance to star. Alas, from all accounts this was Affleck’s passion project and we’re too far along into the picture when we realize the casting snafu.
The supporting cast fares better than our leading man, though. Brendan Gleeson (Edge of Tomorrow) finds several nice moments as Affleck’s law enforcing father and as Affleck’s love interest, Zoe Saldana (Out of the Furance) feels like an equal match to her partner. Chris Cooper (The Company You Keep) and Elle Fanning (The Neon Demon) are father and daughter, and while both eventually find some focus they struggle mightily with the tone of the picture for most of the film. Surprisingly, it’s Sienna Miller (Foxcatcher) that leaves the most lasting impact…but I’m not totally convinced it wasn’t her robust Irish brogue or her unnerving porcelain doll make-up in her final scene that caused her to remain so prominent in my memory.
Bound to come and go with so many other films for grown-ups building on the strong word of mouth this one isn’t destined to gather, Live by Night may be a minor infraction on Affleck’s so far so good resume but it’s not a totally wasted effort.