Monday, January 16, 2017

In Theaters: LIVE BY NIGHT (2016)

(US - 2016)

Written and directed by Ben Affleck. Cast: Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning, Remo Girone, Robert Glenister, Miguel J. Pimentel, Matthew Maher, Anthony Michael Hall, Clark Gregg, Max Casella, J.D. Evermore, Christian Clemenson, Benjamin Ciaramello, Derek Mears. (R, 130 mins)

Ben Affleck made his directing debut with 2007's excellent Dennis Lehane adaptation GONE BABY GONE, and after establishing himself as a solid filmmaker with 2010's THE TOWN and 2012's Best Picture Oscar-winner ARGO, he returns with LIVE BY NIGHT, based on another Lehane novel. Where GONE BABY GONE and THE TOWN (based on a Chuck Hogan novel) were set in contemporary Boston, LIVE BY NIGHT looks at the city in a Prohibition-era setting. While Affleck the director captures the look of late 1920s Boston, his script is all over the place and he's completely miscast in the lead role. Affleck isn't an actor who thrives in period pieces and the film would've been better served had he stayed behind the camera as he did with GONE BABY GONE and cast someone else (co-producer Leonardo DiCaprio, perhaps?). With his Panama hat and oversized suit, he never looks comfortable in the role of Joe Coughlin, a WWI vet and Boston stick-up man-turned-Tampa rum runner. There's simply too much story for a feature film, and here is yet another example of an overstuffed film that would've been better served as a cable miniseries where characters could be fleshed out and events wouldn't be so glossed over. The pacing is choppy and there's reams of sleepy,, mumbly Affleck narration to cover exposition and whole sections of plot that are missing, not to mention Scott Eastwood and Titus Welliver having their entire roles cut out (Welliver is still in the credits, but if he's there, I didn't see him). Robert Richardson's cinematography and Jess Gonchor's production design are top-notch and every now and again, there's a striking image (like a car engulfed in flames sticking out of a shallow lake) or a memorable line of dialogue (the "So what am I talkin' to you for?" bit is great), but the cluttered and muddled LIVE BY NIGHT is otherwise is just too familiar to make its own mark in the gangster genre, borrowing too many ideas from too many movies that came before it to tell a story we've seen countless times before.

Affleck's Coughlin is a small-time Boston hood who happens to be the son of a high-ranking police superintendent (Brendan Gleeson). He's also in love with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the moll of powerful Irish mob kingpin Albert White (Robert Glenister). Their plan to run away together is thwarted when she's intimidated into ratting him out to White, who beats him senseless and leaves him in a coma. After he wakes and serves a stint in prison, he's paroled only to find his father has died and Emma was killed by White. Hell-bent on revenge, Coughlin forms an unholy alliance with Italian crime boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) to take over the booze operation in the Tampa enclave of Ybor City and cut White out of the picture. Heading to Tampa with his buddy Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), Coughlin teams with Cuban gangster Esteban Suarez (singer Miguel, under his full name Miguel J. Pimentel) and falls for his sister and partner Graciella (Zoe Saldana). Coughlin has to deal with all sorts of pressure, from stern police chief Figgis (Chris Cooper) cordially warning him to stay in his territory and they won't have any trouble, to the local chapter of the KKK, led by Figgis' idiot brother-in-law R.D. Pruitt (Matthew Maher), who wants a 60% cut of the business since Joe's club caters to Cubans and blacks and because he's hooked up with Graciella. LIVE BY NIGHT also finds time for a subplot about Figgis' wholesome daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) heading off to Hollywood to be a movie star but instead falling into drugs and prostitution. She then returns to Ybor City to become a fire-and-brimstone preacher warning the townsfolk about the dangers of gambling and "the demon rum," which stonewalls Pescatore's plans for Coughlin to build a casino.

There's also double-crosses against Coughlin by the increasingly greedy Pescatore, who wants his moron son Digger (Max Casella) to take over the Ybor City operation, a sudden reappearance by a character presumed dead for no discernible reason, and about four endings before the credits finally roll. People are introduced and things happen so quickly and at times randomly that it's sometimes difficult to process who's who and how they figure into the story. LIVE BY NIGHT is always nice to look at and Affleck has an undeniable flair with set pieces (including an intense early card game stick-up that he does in a single take), but it's lacking everywhere else. He tries to cover it up with all the narration, but the seams don't take long to show. Affleck's performance is curiously bland throughout, never seeming like a 1920s gangster but always like a modern actor playing gangster dress-up (and for a smart guy, Coughlin is pretty brazenly stupid about being seen in public with Emma). Graciella's character arc makes no sense, bemoaning her husband's (yeah, she and Coughlin get married offscreen and then it's casually mentioned several scenes later) dangerous career, seemingly forgetting that they met because she's a partner in a major Cuban crime organization. Gleeson and Miller have nothing to do, and Cooper's character never makes consistent sense from scene to scene. Veteran Italian character actor Girone (in his first American film in a career going back to 1974) and an outstanding Fanning fare best, even if her Loretta ends up being another underdeveloped plot tangent that briefly turns the film into an Eli Sunday sermon from THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Affleck tries to go for a MILLER'S CROSSING feel, but ends up with a rushed, lesser BOARDWALK EMPIRE, and his own lackluster performance never inspires you to care much about Coughlin. By the  third or fourth ending, the relaxed pace starts to lend a second-tier Clint Eastwood feeling to the proceedings, further demonstrating the uneven tone of the entire project. LIVE BY NIGHT might've had potential, and perhaps a longer director's cut would help, but in the end, it's a formulaic, cliche-laden misfire from Affleck.

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