Live by Night — written, directed, and starring Ben Affleck — is the kind of movie that will make you question whether we were wrong about Ben Affleck’s directing talents. It’s so bad that I found myself second-guessing how much I liked The Town, Gone Baby Gone and Argo, which won the Best Picture Oscar.
Ultimately, however, I don’t think that Affleck is bad director. I think he picked a spectacularly ill-fitting project. He should stick to his comfort zone (Boston) instead of trying to tackle a 1920’s gangster film that is also equal parts bad melodrama and fictional biopic. Live by Night is to Ben Affleck what Legends of the Fall was to Brad Pitt: Completely inscrutable and agonizingly long. Just when you think that Live by Night is about to wrap up, it opens a another chapter.
Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, the son of a Boston police captain, who is so warped by his time in World War I that he turns to a life of crime. He’s initially reluctant, however, to be a gangster, choosing instead to stick to bank robberies and stick-ups. However, after sleeping with the girlfriend (Sienna Miller) of a mob boss, Albert White (Robert Glenister) and spending three years in the clink for a bank robbery, Coughlin comes out of prison looking for revenge against White for possibly killing his girlfriend. So, the Irish Coughlin allies with Albert’s rival Italian Mafia Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), who sends Coughlin to Ybor City, Tampa, Florida, where Joe reunites with his old partner Dion (Chris Messina). Joe and Dion take over the territory, run Albert out, and start looking toward investing in a legit casino operation to keep the money rolling in after Prohibition is eventually repealed.
Meanwhile, Joe meets and falls in love with a Cuban businessman’s sister Graciella Corrales (Zoe Saldana). He also befriends the Sheriff of Tampa, Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper), whose daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) moves to L.A. to become an actress, only to end up getting hooked on heroin and making porn films. She later returns and becomes a hard-core tent-revivalist whose celebrity puts Joe’s casino in danger.
There’s a lot going on here, enough for at least two mediocre movies. There a half-hour bookend, for instance, that probably could’ve been almost completely scrapped. Sienna Miller and Zoe Saldana mostly function as pointless plot devices or vessels for Coughlin’s grief, and while there are a lot of characters in Live by Night, no one other than Affleck — and briefly Elle Fanning — gets their own point of view. They’re all stock gangster types, mostly good actors stuck in a terrible movie in which they have all been badly miscast.
Affleck is only good in an unintentionally comedic way. I like Affleck well enough — he’s a sleazy douchebag, but at least he’s transparent about it — but there’s something too familiar about him for Affleck to be able to pull off a role like this. It’s like having a brother who is an actor — he could be fantastic in a role, but all you can see is your brother parading around in ridiculous white suits and Panama Jack hats. It looks like he’s playing dress-up for a Jimmy Kimmell sketch. Affleck, to me, always seems best suited to Kevin Smith’s films, where he could get away with playing himself.
Here, he’s straight-up silly. In fact, the whole movie is silly, like Affleck trying to channel Boardwalk Empire and a Nicholas Sparks’ movie. It just doesn’t compute. There’s also no real through line. It seems like a revenge flick, but then that goes by the wayside; then it seems like a a biopic about the rise of a fictional 1920’s gangster; but there’s also Chris Cooper and his Bible-thumping daughter, and the KKK gets involved, and the rival gang war gets put on the backburner for much of the movie while Affleck sleeps with Zaldana and opens a shelter for the poor. The film never wants to make up its mind about what kind of character Coughlin is, either. He’s a wishy-washy cold-blooded killer with a heart of gold!
It’s a lot. There’s two movies here, and while neither of them are very good, one of them should have been reduced to a montage so that Affleck could keep its attention focused on the other. There’s no consistent style or aesthetic, either, and at times it looks like it’s being made on a cheap cardboard reproduction of a 1920’s set. It’s a crap movie, and Ben Affleck can do better. Let’s just hope that his Batman movie is more Argo than Live by Night.