Ben Affleck’s volatile career has gone something like this: an early Academy Award winner for Best Original Screenplay for “Good Will Hunting,” followed by a rough ride both inside and outside the industry during the JLo years, and then a major comeback as a writer/director. The first-rate “Gone Baby Gone” instantly accrued goodwill, and it paved the way for “Argo,” which won Best Picture at the Oscars in 2013. But ever since his high-profile gig as Batman in Zack Snyder‘s maligned “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice” — the negative response of which reportedly embarrassed the star — Affleck’s been running into uncertain and uneven terrain again. To psychoanalyze a tad, this downward trend culminates in “Live By Night,” Affleck’s meandering, derivative failure that he won’t soon forget.
If “Gone Baby Gone” marked a remarkable return to form for the Affleck brand, “Live By Night” is a wholesale unraveling. Marred with egregious voiceover to stitch the picture together — “I lived [the gangster] life for 10 years until it caught up to me. It all started with an inside man…” — Affleck’s self-serious drama about a Boston gangster who migrates to Miami to run the rum trade during Prohibition is a wild miscarriage so familiar in its formulaic tough-guy clichés that it prevents the picture from ever catching fire.
An adaptation of the novel by Dennis Lehane, Affleck — seemingly tired in his performance, beyond the weary character — plays Joe Coughlin, a bandit and prodigal son of Boston police captain Thomas Coughlin (Brendan Gleeson), who lives outside the law following his bloody and death-riddled experiences overseas during WWI (“I left a soldier, I came home an outlaw,” he says gravely in his gravelly voice). Hardened and scarred, he vows to live an anti-establishment life, which leads to a career as a bank robber, stealing from the system but never from the common man. Coughlin tries to uphold a self-delusional moral code of criminality, but it’s a fatal liability in both love and business.
Missteps, arrogance and retribution end his reckless criminal career in Boston, and soon he attempts to start over again in Miami as a rum bootlegger, but — platitude alert — he finds the same problems he’s running from awaiting him in the swelter of Florida. Suffering from a boilerplate script, “Live By Night” telegraphs itself thematically with familiar arcs and banal dialogue you’ve heard a thousand times in by-the-book gangster films no matter the era (“What you put into the world will always come back to you, but never come back to you how you predict”).
But in either setting — cold and wiseguy-ish Bauhston or sweaty and Cuban-culture-flecked Miami — “Live By Night” never makes a case for its existence as a fresh take on the absolve-oneself-from-sin gangster drama. Surprises of any kind are missing in the movie’s notions of payback and karma — it’s just a matter of taking their sweet time to finally arrive. Clocking in at just over two hours, “Live By Night” feels much longer, and its bloated pace drips like slow molasses. Flabby in shape, too, the drama finds a director with his eyes off the prize and a picture that cumulatively feels like it’s run away from him trickle by trickle. Even at its best, the sluggish “Live By Night” rarely even entertains.
There’s perhaps a few elements to be lauded. Cinematographer Robert Richardson couldn’t light a scene poorly if he tried, and Chris Cooper and Elle Fanning deliver some commendable performances, but “Live By Night” never touches authenticity (say nothing about the thankless molls played by Sienna Miller and Zoe Saldana, or the achingly hammy turn by Chris Messina). Even its period-piece costuming is awkwardly tailored with stitches out of place; Affleck’s affected picture acts like adults playing cops and robbers dress-up rather than people living out a genuine experience. Even similar ground covered in the waning final seasons of “Boardwalk Empire” were less slack and more engaging than this middling effort. “Live By Night” is so puffy it begs the question: Is this movie hung over?
Ostensibly struggling with moral ambiguity — at his core, Joe Coughlin is a good man obligated to do terrible things in the name of unforgiving bosses, pride and criminal principle — this would-be emotional texture is terribly lackluster. Again, nothing new is brought to the table, and there’s little flash to the filmmaking to help elevate the material. One could argue that Affleck’s past genre exercises in crime weren’t groundbreaking either, but at least they exhibited compelling drive.
Labelling “Live By Night” a disaster is a little uncharitable; the baggy drama is perhaps more painfully mediocre than full-blown folly, but it’s close. Mostly phoned-in and flat, “Live By Night” possesses none of the killer instinct that usually fuels the ruthless crime drama, narratively or otherwise. An uninspired examination of the outlaw life and honor among thieves, no matter how one tries to frame it, “Live By Night” is missing bite. And without teeth, all the picture can do is slosh around without focus, earning the unfortunate distinction of a directorial career worst for Affleck. [D+]