Starring: Ben Affleck, Chris Messina, Zoe Saldana, Remo Girone, Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning, Robert Glenister, Sienna Miller, Brendan Gleeson
Rated R for Strong Violence, Language Throughout, and Some Sexuality/Nudity
"Live by Night," is too ambitious for its own good. While that's admirable and almost always preferable to the contrary, it doesn't negate the fact that the movie doesn't work. Almost, but not quite. The number of elements that director/screenwriter/star Ben Affleck tries to put into a movie that stretches barely over two hours is extraordinary: the mob (Irish, Italian and Cuban), the KKK, religious revivals, people coming back from the dead, romance, the rise and fall from grace, theological questions, police corruption and prohibition, among others. It would try the talents of great directors like Martin Scorcese or Francis Ford Coppola (both of whom have tackled similar material with better results). And while I applaud Affleck for his attempt, I can't do the same for the result.
Joe Coughlin (Affleck) has had enough following orders. Emotionally scarred from fighting in World War I, Joe decides to live by his own rules rather than ally himself with any mob bosses. He happens to be in love with Emma Gould (Miller), the girlfriend of Albert White (Glenister), who is the head of the Irish mob. A betrayal ends up with him in prison and Emma dead. Naturally, he wants revenge, and to do that, he allies himself with White's rival, Maso Pestacore (Girone). He is sent to Florida to build up the rum racket, where he meets the lovely Graciela (Saldana), the sister of the local Cuban mob boss. He falls in love with her, but racial tensions and changing times threaten the empire he and his friend Dion (Messina) have built up.
That, of course, is only scratching the surface. There's simply too much material for a two hour film, and Affleck, who really only has directed one good film (his debut "Gone Baby Gone", lacks the delicate touch to weave such a complex tale. Characters are underwritten, the plot is frequently muddled and subplots rarely have room to breathe. Still, there's enough good stuff here that I might be able to recommend the film had it not been for his biggest flaw: Affleck himself.
Affleck could best be described as a character actor. He lacks the range and screen presence to carry a film, and is best suited to supporting parts. Nowhere is this more apparent than in this film, where he underplays the role. He speaks softly and doesn't carry a big stick. Perhaps this was an attempt to internalize the character or play a low-key individual, but it has the result of Joe possess little to no personality. He's drowned out by everyone he comes into contact with. I could tentatively recommend this film, but his lifeless performance is an albatross on the $65 million production.
He has selected an impressive supporting cast, but that only highlights the weaknesses in his performance. All are effective (especially Brendan Gleeson, who has rarely been better. How Affleck could think anyone would believe that he was Gleeson's son is something only he knows, but I'll chalk that up to artistic license and let it slide). Zoe Saldana has the ethereal quality needed for a film like this, except that her character goes from intriguing femme fatale to generic worrying wife. Chris Messina is bland as Dino; his attempts to appear low-key are annoying. Sienna Miller is completely unrecognizable as the Irish lass that Joe falls for. I had no idea that it was her.
On a technical level, the film impresses. This is a lush, beautiful looking film; the camerawork by Robert Richardson is easily among the strongest I've seen in a while, and deserves Oscar consideration (that it won't get). The action scenes are appropriately brutal without being overly graphic and are adequately executed.
There are good scenes here, particularly during the second half. In the end, it's Affleck's boring lead character that tilts my recommendation to a less than positive review.