THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"LIVE BY NIGHT"
Live by Night is Ben Affleck's fourth -- and weakest -- film as a director. Gone Baby Gone and The Town showed that he is just as talented behind the camera as he is in front of it. The Oscar-winning Argo cemented his reputation as a filmmaker. Every great director is allowed to have an occasional dud, and as far as duds go, this isn't even all that bad. Live by Night is adequate, it's just lacking the zing of Affleck's previous pictures.
Set during the Prohibition Era, the movie centers around Joe Coughlin (Affleck), a low-level Boston criminal who gets pulled into organized crime after it's discovered that he's been having an affair with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the girlfriend of prominent Irish gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister). He eventually ends up in Tampa, Florida, where he manages a rum-running operation for White's rival, Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone).
The operation grows with Couglin and right-hand man Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina) in charge. There are, however, some problems. One is Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning), a failed actress-turned-evangelist whose influential sermons against gambling and booze may stand in Coughlin's way. The other is his relationship with Graciela Suarez (Zoe Saldana), a black Cuban immigrant. Their fling draws the attention of the KKK, as well as the notice of Loretta's sheriff father (Chris Cooper).
As you can tell, there's a lot going on in Live by Night, which is precisely the problem. Any one (or two) of the ingredients could have been developed into something wholly engaging. Putting all of them into the same movie leads to a muddled mess, where no individual subplot ever reaches its full potential. In fairness, Affleck (who also wrote the screenplay) is adapting Dennis Lehane's novel. Even so, he could have picked something to chop in order to streamline the narrative.
The overstuffed plot ensures that the pace never gets far above a slow crawl. Things like shootouts and a well-staged car chase can't even quicken Live by Night's pulse. Everything drags, almost as if the movie is playing at half-speed. Some of the plot threads are potentially engrossing. The story of Loretta, for instance, could virtually fill up a movie all on its own. Coughlin has a reason to want her to fail in Hollywood. He doesn't count on her coming back so radically changed and ready to throw a major roadblock in his path. The two characters get a really meaningful confrontation scene together, yet that's about as far as it goes. What should be the flash point for high drama instead fizzles out.
Similarly, the romance between Coughlin and Graciela is dull. There's no heat between Affleck and Saldana, and their characters' supposed feelings for one another are so forced by the script that you don't believe the relationship for a second. Since that's supposed to be central to the overall plot, having it not work is damaging.
It's fairly shocking how little momentum the movie has, especially since Affleck's three previous films were all impressively tense. There is a feeling that things are missing here, as though more footage existed but wasn't used. Connective tissue seems to be lacking. Scott Eastwood, for instance, had his entire role as Joe's brother excised, which creates a weird What was that about? moment in the last two minutes when a significant detail about this now-absentee character is prominently, and confusingly, presented.
The performances are very good, with Chris Cooper and Elle Fanning the standouts. Brendan Gleeson also does typically fine work as Coughlin's cop father. Individual scenes here and there manage to generate some interest, which only serves to make you realize how amazing Live by Night could have been had it figured out what to scale down, what to expand upon, and how to combine them for peak effectiveness.
This isn't a terrible movie. But a middling one? Most definitely.
( 1/2 out of four)
Live by Night is rated R for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 8 minutes.
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