In the stylish Prohibition-era gangster yarn "Live by Night," native son Ben Affleck has ambitions as big as his movie's hat budget. From fedoras to scallys to derbys, Affleck wears many caps both in front and behind the camera, where he pulls duty as writer, director and producer.
For his fourth directing effort, Affleck (an Oscar-winner for "Argo") returns to the well of local crime novelist Dennis Lehane hoping to rekindle the magic of his well-received debut, "Gone Baby Gone." But the well is tapped -- as dry as 1920s America. Affleck gives us a movie that's a celebration of style over substance -- cleverly staged, sumptuously photographed and superbly acted -- but in the end it's little more than a watered-down "Godfather."
The story -- like Lehane's very zig-zaggy book -- is simultaneously convoluted and forgettable, especially when the action moves from Boston to Ybor City in Tampa. It's actually quite easy to lose track of what these people are supposed to be doing -- and I watched it twice. Affleck simply tries to do too much, infusing the central story with too much extraneous stuff. His first mistake is casting himself in the lead as Joe Coughlin, a low-level criminal emotionally scarred from World War I. When the movie opens in 1917, we hear Joe (Affleck, in voiceover) say how he left Boston "a soldier and returned an outlaw," and how he'll "never follow orders again." And so, it's the thug life or no life because you only get one life, says Joe. He's pretty small potatoes -- cash grabs at poker games, quick bank sticks, easy-peasy. After 10 years, the villainy catches up to him. Why? Because there would be no movie if it didn't. And so, in a nutshell, Joe crosses Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister), gets himself thrown in Charlestown State Prison for 40 months. After his release, Italian kingpin Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) sends him down to Tampa to run rum and shut White's southern operations. Sweet revenge. Joe's joined by his old partner, Dion Bartolo (a scene-stealing Chris Messina). They tool around Ybor in a fancy yellow convertible. Affleck leaves no period detail unturned and is a master at setting mood.
Joe is a gangster with a heart of gold. His Achilles heel? Women, three in particular: The blonde floozy Emma (an unrecognizable Sienna Miller), Cuban beauty Graciela (Zoe Saldana), and the innocent holy-roller Loretta (Elle Fanning). Each gal gets under his skin and causes conflict to Joe's personal and professional life. And with three women, comes three storylines to keep track of, and in turn, more characters to jam into an already crowded script. Chris Cooper plays the Ybor police chief, and his brother-in-law (Matthew Maher) is a Ku Klux Klan member straight out of red-neck casting who hates Joe because he's Irish Catholic. Cooper is particularly strong as a tormented father. Also showing up in Tampa are Miguel J. Pimentel as Joe's bootlegging partner, Max Casella as Pescatore's son and Anthony Michael Hall as a rum distributor.
The superior first act is very much a Boston movie, beefed up by the presence of the always-terrific Brendan Gleeson as Joe's top-cop father, Thomas Coughlin. He's especially entertaining in an early tete-a-tete with Miller's Emma at a swank Boston restaurant, calling her out for the being "the kind of girl who consorts with criminals." It's the type of well-written scene the movie needs more of instead of relying on the obvious. You can bet that something will be made of all the talk of the underground tunnels in Ybor, or that the character who dabbles in photography will supply a pivotal picture, and so on. If something is said, then it'll be seen later. There are no surprises.
As he proved in "The Town," Affleck can stage awesome action pieces, and "Live by Night" follows suit with a car chase carried out in classy 1920s chariots following a botched bank robbery. Other standouts scenes include a pair of shoot-em-ups in Tampa.
As Joe, Affleck looks fabulous in period double-breasted suits and hats, but his acting is all wooden and straight-forward, traits that served him well in the past, but not here. His character demands heavy-duty nuance to sort out all the moral and ethical struggles. Affleck just can't do that unless he's got a David Fincher ("Gone Girl") coaxing him.
Many of the Boston scenes were shot on location in Massachusetts, which lends authenticity. The accents, Affleck's included, are not horrible, and there are many references to local areas: Lawrence, North Reading, the North End and Savin Hill. In the end, "Night" is watchable even if it doesn't live up to expectations.
-- Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
"Live by Night"
Cast Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Messina, Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning.
(R for strong violence, language, sexuality)