Film Review: Live by Night

by Carrie Kahn on January 13, 2017

Affleck’s gangster pic falls flat

As gangster Joe Coughlin, Ben Affleck perfects the art of stoicism.

The best thing that can be said about Live by Night, Ben Affleck’s third writing/directing attempt (after the infinitely better Gone Baby Gone and The Town) is that Affleck definitely looks great in an overcoat and a fedora. Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Affleck’s newest picture is a run-of-the-mill 1920s gangster piece that offers nothing new to the genre, and nothing worth watching on screen, save, of course, for that fedora, which sure suits Affleck’s square-jawed face well.

Live by Night follows Joe Coughlin (Affleck), the son of an Irish (of course) Boston police captain (Brendan Gleeson), who becomes a decently successful petty criminal after returning from serving in the War. After a series of events not worth going into (not because I don’t want to spoil them; they’re just not that interesting), Joe falls in with the Italian mob (gasp!) with the ultimate goal of eliminating the head of the Irish mob, the sinister Albert White (Robert Glenister, gamely chewing the scenery). Various plot turns take Joe to Florida, where he runs a rum bootlegging operation with his partner Dion (Chris Messina, sporting bad teeth and a paunch), and falls in love with Cuban-American Graciela (Zoe Saldana). As the turf war between the competing gangs heats up – the Ku Klux Klan even plays a part – Joe struggles to find some peace, and we struggle to care.

Graciela (Zoe Saldana) manages to get Joe (Ben Affleck) to almost smile.

The film is a lot of style over substance; all those three piece suits and Gatsby-esque fashions are fun to look at, but, beyond that, Affleck doesn’t have much to offer us. At one point Joe delivers a pedantic speech about how the country was built thanks to the hard work of immigrants (remember, the Klan makes an appearance), and, while the words can’t help but be stirring, you can almost hear Affleck congratulating himself as he penned the scene, thinking of its modern day relevancy.

Affleck might have spent less time creating pointed political commentary and more time making his film more original; the picture, with its Florida/Cuban locales and excessive gun violence, feels like a rip off not just of Scarface, but also The Godfather. Affleck even writes a line for Joe that echoes Pacino’s famous “don’t ever ask me about my business” line, and that winking joke just feels forced and overplayed instead of smart and funny.

Chief Figgis (Chris Cooper, l.) holds his own against Joe (Ben Affleck).

The narrative, thin as it is, also isn’t helped by being delivered in a series of choppy, disparate scenes that don’t coalesce, leaving the viewer occasionally confused and mostly bored. The picture’s only saving graces are performances by Chris Cooper, as a corrupt but reverent Florida police chief, and Elle Fanning, as Cooper’s pious daughter, for whom Joe develops a soft spot. Cooper and Fanning, unfortunately for them, but fortunately for us, seem to think they are in a much better movie than they are, and bring much appreciated gravitas and energy to the proceedings. In contrast, Affleck is so flat and one-note that you wonder if he was so tapped out from writing and directing duties that had no steam left for the acting side of things.

My screening companion had read the book, and told me that, as would be expected, the novel was much better, with richer character development and more detailed backstory. That was little consolation to me, since I had just wasted over two hours of my time on the film version, but now you can benefit from my experience: if any of the above sounds even remotely intriguing to you, I’d suggest you skip the film, go out and buy the book, and take in the story that way. The resulting movie created in your head will no doubt be far better than the one Affleck created on screen.

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Live by Night opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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