Ben Affleck is one of the more underrated performers of his generation, except in his own mind, where he continues to think that anything is possible. The ugly truth is that he’s good at playing assholes who are getting away with being assholes because they’re ridiculously good looking. Which is why Hollywoodland worked, and why he was able to make a useful fist of things in Gone Girl. When he directs and mysteriously decides to cast himself as the hero, things tend to go wrong.
Live By Night is a pretty good example of that. It’s a great looking movie about a hoodlum who doesn’t want to be too much of a bad guy, and it cries out for a different star to the one that it’s got. In principle I can see where Affleck was coming from. He’s adapted Denis Lehane before, to very good effect. It’s just that he forgot that for Gone Baby Gone he stayed behind the camera and got the more talented Affleck to stand in front of it. Casey Affleck could have really made Live By Night take wings, because Casey can give you a sense of a man struggling to hold things together.
Ben, not so much. His character is a guy who just wants a quiet life lived outside the rules, but the longer he runs in the shadows, the more he falls away from whatever principles he thought he had, and finally he winds up walking away and losing just about everything. A better actor would somehow sell us on that; on the hollowness of the whole idea and the gradual realisation of how hollow it was. But Ben’s not quite up to that, and instead we get a good looking easy guy just trying to get by on charm and the hint of muscle behind it.
What surprised me after the fact was that the movie was a pretty faithful adaptation of the book; pretty much everything made it to the screen except for one kind of far-fetched arms-smuggling plot which would just have looked way too Hollywood. Some of the other sub-plots were thinned out a bit, but it’s all pretty much on the screen, and that’s a good piece of adaptation right there.
Stuff which didn’t land; it’s the Boston Irish trying to infiltrate the Italian mob, so there are Irish accents all over the place, and I do mean all over the place. So there’s Robert Glennister with his best Gloccamara brogue - honestly, it could have been worse. I know, because there was Sienna Miller’s Dorchester girl from County Cork who sounds like she trained by watching Mrs Brown’s Boys. Just to give us a baseline, there’s Brendan Gleeson with a real accent.
Stuff which kind of did; there’s a fun car chase. It doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, but it’s thrilling in a stupid way. There’s a wonderful “Why am I talking to you?” moment which is simultaneously funny and yet another reminder of why we needed an actor who could show us just how dead inside Joe Coughlin has been all along.
Which brings me back to the real problem. Joe Coughlin’s not a nice guy. He tells himself he is, but he’s not anything like a nice guy. He’s arguably less horrible than his enemies, but that’s a pretty low bar. And Ben Affleck makes him seem uncomplicated and half way decent, just an amiable palooka trying to get a job done while everyone else makes it complicated and dangerous. If Ben had left room in front of the camera for someone complicated and dangerous, he could have made something really good.