Monday, January 16, 2017

'Live by Night' review

When it was announced in late 2013 that Ben Affleck would be taking on the role of Batman in the upcoming DC Cinematic Universe, I was seriously disappointed, but not for the same reasons as most. While many comic book fans thought that Affleck was absolutely the wrong choice for the character of Bruce Wayne, I really didn't care either way. I was more personally disappointed by the fact that Affleck had chosen to put his directorial career on the backburner in favor of a role in a big blockbuster franchise. Affleck was just coming off the pinnacle of his career with the Best Picture win for Argo, a spectacular historical thriller that showcased his talents on a brand new level. For his next project, he had lined up an adaptation of Dennis Lehane's Live by Night, an epic crime novel that works exceptionally well. As someone who actually read the book (a true rarity these days), I was excited for Affleck's cinematic take. Originally scheduled for a Christmas 2015 release date, Live by Night was set to be one of the most anticipated films of the next several years.

But as the DC Extended Universe took shape and Affleck became fully invested in his role as Batman, the multi-hyphenate's crime saga ended up being delayed over and over again. With Batman v Superman and Justice League at the forefront, Live by Night was pushed back by Warner Bros. all the way to October 2017. When the studio moved the film to an early January release date, many assumed that Affleck had crafted a surefire Oscar contender. But as Affleck's fourth directorial feature began to screen for critics and industry experts, Hollywood came to the slow realization that Live by Night was something of a disaster. Despite a few possible opportunities in technical categories, the Oscar buzz for this film is pretty much shot. The limited release of the film was a total bomb, and it's now limping into a wide release during a competitive weekend. But is the old-fashioned crime drama as bad as everyone says it is?

Not really, but I still have to chalk it up as a pretty significant disappointment. Live by Night is a watchable film, the kind that you could catch while flipping cable channels late at night. It's beautiful and there are plenty of wonderful performances and scenes, but it feels like a shorter version of a crime epic. It's hard for me to say much that hasn't already been said by the other critics who were hugely let down by Affleck's latest, but most of their criticisms ring true in my own personal opinion as well. It's certainly not a good adaptation of Lehane's novel, which is a sprawling, dynamic, and tragic piece of work. In the movie, the story beats feel cluttered, and the emotion feels unearned. There are simply too many characters and there's just too much plot for a 129 minute film, and I really hope that we end up seeing some kind of director's cut down the line. Because while I still don't know if Affleck would have hit all the marks, Live by Night in its current state feels like a gorgeous, haphazard gangster film that never reaches its full potential.

Joe Coughlin (Affleck) went to World War I hoping to fight for his country, but in the end, all he found was suffering and death. After the Great War, he decided he would never fight someone else's battles again. Coughlin became an outlaw, doing small-time robberies with a merry band of misfits. At the same time, he's also carrying on an affair with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the mistress of a powerful crime boss named Albert White (Robert Glenister). Oh, and Joe is the son of Thomas Coughlin (Brendan Gleeson), the police chief of Boston. After being betrayed by someone close to him, Joe ends up beaten to a pulp with a three year stint in prison waiting for him. When he gets out, Joe teams up with Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), a rival mob boss who hopes to destroy White's business in Florida. Maso tells Joe to go to Tampa, strike a deal with the Suarez family, and corner the Floridian rum market.

Along with his former bank robbing partner, Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), Joe heads to sunny Florida and establishes himself as a gangster kingpin (despite previous attempts to not associate with that label). Joe quickly makes an agreement with Esteban Suarez (Miguel), and his beautiful sister, Graciela (Zoe Saldana), and the business takes off. White's operation begins to crumble, Joe finds love with Graciela, and Chief Figgis (Chris Cooper) stays out of his way. But as the stakes grow higher for Joe, Dion, and their boss, new problems emerge. First, there's the issue of RD Pruitt (Matthew Maher), a Klansman and the brother-in-law of Figgis. Secondly, there's the problem of the Ku Klux Klan as a whole. And finally, there's Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning), the young preacher who is making a stir in the area for some spoiler-y reasons. As Pruitt and Figgis threaten to destroy the Coughlin/Pescatore gambling operation, Joe will have to discover if he's cruel enough to be a true mob boss in the brutal world of Prohibition.

Okay, so this movie isn't a total disaster. When I first heard word that Live by Night didn't match up to expectations, most of the buzz was centered around it being one of the worst movies of 2016 and a total fiasco. It really isn't. Does it miss the mark completely? Yep. But is it still an entertaining, compelling, mostly well-directed movie? Certainly. Live by Night is a beautiful film, one brimming with intriguing performances, handsome design elements, and a few gripping setpieces. I love the Florida setting, which was kind of explored in The Godfather Part II, but still feels entirely fresh in this film. I also adore the work done by cinematographer Robert Richardson, costume designer Jacqueline West, and production designer Jess Gonchor, who all give the movie a pristine visual shine. There are stretches that are simply gorgeous, dripping in a classic style that seems to relish in its old-school charm. It's a film that passes by breezily- it doesn't require much effort or thought from the audience. Essentially, it's the kind of film I can easily see myself watching on TNT on a weekend evening.

But with this much talent involved and such great source material, that really shouldn't have been the case. When I read Live by Night, I thought that it really had the potential to be the next great gangster epic when translated to film. The book is sprawling and unruly, telling the story of nearly a decade in the life of an angry, motivated rebel with an energy and gusto that isn't matched by most crime stories. It captures two different crime markets with detail and precision, while even managing to slip in a little bit of history. It's a truly excellent novel. With such pitch-perfect material, Affleck couldn't totally screw it up. Unfortunately, Live by Night still ends up operating in "Worst Case Scenario" territory. Affleck captures the look and the feel, while also fitting in nearly every single story beat from Lehane's book. Yet somehow, he never manages to find the soul of the story.

In paperback form, Live by Night is 402 pages long. And simply put, it earns every single page. There is no fat on Lehane's book- it's a sweeping historical crime epic, one that could have been magnificent on the big screen. While Affleck's film has other shortcomings, I can imagine a longer version of this (think over 3 hours long) or a television miniseries would have successfully brought the characters and the world of 1920s Florida to life. Maybe Affleck didn't fight enough with the studio for a longer cut or maybe his screenplay was just never up to snuff, but Live by Night just feels like a summary. It feels like a Cliffs Notes version of the book, capturing all the major story beats and highlighting critical scenes without featuring Lehane's emphasis on character or the epic nature of the novel. For that reason, characters feel like empty voids, motivation can be totally nonexistent, and the grand arc of the story vanishes.

If I'm being honest, I was always concerned about Affleck playing the character of Joe Coughlin. Affleck is too big, too buff, too composed and collected. Coughlin is a brash young upstart, a rebel who does whatever he pleases with an attitude. Those two descriptions just don't match up, and I'll admit, there were plenty of times during the movie where I was totally distracted by Affleck's performance. Something just feels wrong about him playing a gangster kingpin. He's a towering figure, significantly larger than everyone else in the room, more fit to play a mob enforcer than the man running the show. In fact, I would argue that Affleck's mostly indifferent performance as Coughlin is one of the biggest failures of the movie, one that could have only been fixed with a totally different actor in the role (Joseph Gordon-Levitt was always my choice).

The supporting crew features some performances that would have been good with some more development, but with the material they're given and the current cut of the film, the minor characters still fall short. Elle Fanning continues to shine as a brilliant young actress, but I just wish that there was more time to explore the story of Loretta Figgis. Same goes for Chris Cooper's Chief Figgis, an interesting character bogged down in shaky motivation and a tendency to make strange decisions. Even a character that I liked, such as Chris Messina's Dion Bartolo, feels under-written, which is indicative of a problem in the movie as a whole. The villains are one-note or deprived of any sense of intimidation, with Albert White and RD Pruitt coming off as bizarre, goofy individuals. The love interests are even less interesting, as both Emma Gould and Graciela Suarez come off as bland, uninteresting, empty people. Only Brendan Gleeson manages to escape from the mess, with essentially a one-scene cameo that is captivating and engaging. Sure, his part is still underwritten, but at least Affleck knows not to stretch for more.

Live by Night is a watchable disappointment, the kind of film that entertains in the moment but desperately leaves you wanting more. As a huge fan of the book and as someone who enjoyed all of Affleck's prior directorial efforts, the sense of frustration is slightly more acute. However, it also means that I'm more willing to give a soft pass to something that I was pre-disposed to like. I enjoy crime movies, I'm a big fan of this book, and I was eagerly awaiting Affleck's follow-up to Argo- therefore, I had a decent enough time with Live by Night even while noting multiple problems. Maybe this really is a fiasco and I've been far too kind to it, but for what its worth, I had an okay time. Unfortunately, in a time of year where there are so many spectacular pieces of cinema playing in theaters, a mediocre crime drama just isn't going to cut it.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C+                                            (6.4/10)

Image Credits: IMDB/Warner Bros. 

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