‘Live by Night’
Director: Ben Affleck
Stars: Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana
2 (out of 5) Globes
They don’t make them like they used to. We hear that about movies a lot these days, especially since today’s Hollywood only makes two or three genres. That’s why it’s always a treat to see, say, a gangster movie — and then always a sock to the gut when they’re pitiful messes. If any movie’s going to revive a sadly dead genre, it’s not going to be Ben Affleck’s “Live by Night,” a movie that only exists because Ben Affleck is Ben Affleck. He wanted to make an “old-fashioned” movie, but he struck out so mightily you can’t even give his film the benefit of the doubt.
The story follows Joe Coughlin, the son of a big wig Boston police captain (Brendan Gleeson) who went to WWI and came back a nihilist. He believes in nothing, which is why he turned to bootlegging. But he doesn’t entirely believe in nothing, which is why he’s a good gangster: the type who will only rob from the really, really, really bad (but still shoot people in the face). He finds himself reluctantly caught in between two Boston crime bosses, one of whom sends him to Tampa to oversee the rum division. There, his empire — a multicultural utopia, featuring Zoe Saldana as a half-Cuban love interest — has to contend with evil KKK droogs, a morally slippery police head (Chris Cooper), a teenage evangelist (Elle Fanning) and other rival forces that keep coming like the brooms in “Fantasia.”
The 1930s gangster movie, the best of them made by “Live by Night”‘s studio Warner Bros., was lean and mean and rarely nice. Affleck’s film is none of these. It’s plodding and murky, the inevitable by-product of trying to whittle a complicated and dense novel (by Dennis Lehaine) down to two hours. It plays like it was mercilessly amputated from an epic, yet it still feels long because there’s too much stuff and not enough forward momentum. Even a murderer’s row of fine supporting players fail to make a dent. (This is, after “Assassin’s Creed,” the second December movie where Gleeson wanders in for one or two scenes then is abruptly dispatched.) Chris Messina does have some fun as Joe’s cackling psycho of a second-in-command, and Fanning is excellent in (sigh) about three scenes. “Live by Night” really knows how to waste its best parts: Sienna Miller, as an Irish moll in love with Joe, is such a strong and fiery presence that of course she’s dismissed before the second act.
Holding it all together is Affleck in sleepy zombie mode, a state he’s always in in pictures also directed by Ben Affleck. Just as Kevin Costner the director sees Kevin Costner the actor as a boring fount of nobility, the director Affleck likes to cast himself as a brooding sadsack, always at some point staring poignantly at seas (though this time at least he doesn’t sport a depresso’s beard). His direction is overly-studied, too, fetishizing costumes and expensive period sets while ignoring what’s going on inside them. Affleck no doubt began “Live by Night” with the best intentions, hoping to add flavor to our overly homogenous movie landscape. It’s no fun to report that it soured into purest hubris.