Live by Night **1/2

A good looking, wannabe epic that’s entertaining enough, but doesn’t amount to much.

Is it worth $10? Yes

Ben Affleck is a better director than actor. He’s a fine thespian, but he’s superior behind the camera. “Live by Night” is his fourth film and second adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel. The first was Affleck’s excellent directorial debut, “Gone Baby Gone.” But does Affleck go four for four with “Live by Night”? Sadly, no. It’s kind of a mess, but a watchable mess.

A period gangster tale, Affleck also stars as Joe Coughlin, a veteran who returns to his Boston home disillusioned by the horrors of World War I. We don’t actually see any of this. Rather, it’s all conveyed by a lengthy bit of voice over narration, a crutch leaned on far too often, much to the film’s detriment.

Coughlin rejects authority and takes up a life of crime, robbing banks and ripping off gangsters. It’s the prohibition era, and he finds himself caught in a brutal turf war between Irish and Italian mobs, with both sides attempting to recruit the resilient Coughlin. He refuses their advances. He’s not a gangster, he says.

Of course, Joe has an Achilles heel that forces him to choose sides. Of course, it’s the love of his life, Emma (Sienna Miller). Of course, she is also the girlfriend of Albert White (Robert Glenister), the head of the Irish mob. The film is not bereft of clichés. The two lovers attempt to run away together and are betrayed, leaving Joe nearly beaten to death by Albert’s men. But Joe survives and swears revenge, joins the Italian faction to do so, and is sent to Tampa to squeeze Albert out of his rum running operation.

I think I’ll stop there, but the movie does go on and on like that. It’s a sprawling narrative that just keeps on sprawling.  That’s not really a problem. The real problem is that huge chunks of the film, not just the opening, are literally explained away by that incessant voiceover I mentioned earlier. Instead of a narrative, “Night” simply has a narrator. It feels like a quarter of the movie happens off camera and is explained, rather than shown to us. 

But what it does show is visually sumptuous. Everything about the movie screams “Prestige Picture!” The grand, detailed sets and costumes, the languid cinematography, and bombastic music all make a case for the film’s grandiocity. Early on, for example, we’re treated to an establishing shot of a ritzy party, and the camera slowly glides in and around the hundreds of extras all dressed in period clothing. There’s very little reason for this other than to show off. On the surface, it works because it is visually impressive. But it’s a little hollow since the movie is basically a genre picture that makes the most out of the violence, gore, and sex inherent to the story, and worse, doesn’t have much to say. At least Affleck shows a teensy bit of restraint with the violence, but there’s still plenty of it to go around. Basically, the movie is a tarted up B picture. I’d call it tastefully tasteless.    

But some of it works. The acting is generally good, though with ringers like Brendan Gleeson and Chris Cooper in the cast, that’s to be expected. And Affleck almost pulls off the stoic, silent, smoldering anti-hero. It’s a seemingly easy role that’s actually tough to pull off. How do you remain stone-faced and interesting at the same time? Better actors have tried and failed. Affleck almost gets there, but he’s a bit too reserved, leaving him adrift in his own movie.

There are also humorous back and forths interspersed throughout. The Tampa location is different to the usual settings of gangster tales such as this and the recreation of it is remarkable. And even though the movie does have its fair share of clichés, it also manages to avoid a few. The relationship between Joe and Graciella (Zoe Saldana), whom he connects with in Tampa (she seems intriguing at first, and then, sadly, doesn’t do much), seems set up as something that will devolve into maudlin drama: the other woman who can’t live up to his true love. But it turns into something else entirely, something quieter and a little more thoughtful.

Affleck’s oeuvre (which also includes “The Town” and the Oscar-winning “Argo”), excepting his debut, is increasingly reminding me of Adult Oriented Rock. Like AOR, his movies are made by talented people, are geared toward adults, feature an artistic bent, but are not really artistically challenging, and go down smoothly.  “Live by Night” goes down so smoothly, in fact, that you might not notice its myriad problems. But if it were a “Journey” album, it wouldn’t be their greatest hits.

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