Starring: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, C.J. Wilson, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams, Heather Burns, Gretchen Mol, Matthew Broderick
Rated R for Language Throughout and Some Sexual Content
Note: I didn't see the entire film. I walked in a few moments after the opening credits had started, meaning I missed the first 30 seconds. I normally don't review movies when I haven't seen the film in its entirety. But I asked another viewer and he said I didn't miss anything. Technically I shouldn't be writing this review, but the film is too good to get overlooked. There, my confession is done.
The 30-something man child is a comedy staple. Characters in a state of arrested development have been the heroes of comedy for generations. In recent years, it's taken off. From Chris Farley in "Tommy Boy" to the early Adam Sandler movies to "Ted," it's pretty much a given that in any comedy, the goals of every male character are sex, drinking and drugs. It's in like never before, due to the inexplicable appeal of Seth Rogen and his group of "Freaks and Geeks" co-stars and fellow stand-up comedians. "Manchester by the Sea" takes a look at the other side of this archetype. Rather than be the focal point for immature humor and boorish behavior, it shows how it destroys life and shatters those nearby with the resulting shrapnel.
Lee Chandler (Affleck) is such an individual. An alcoholic whose refusal to grow up leaves him a janitor and with an ex-wife named Randi (Williams). But he hides deep wounds that explain, but do not excuse, his life. However, a chance for redemption comes when his brother Joe (Chandler) dies of a heart attack. Since his ex-wife, Elise (Mol) is largely out of the picture (for good reason), the only one who can care for Joe's sixteen-year-old son, Patrick (Hedges), is Lee. Lee is ill-equipped for such a responsibility (and knows it), but soldiers on, doing the best he can. Now Lee is going to have to make a life-altering decision: uproot and raise Patrick until he turns 18, or run from it and go back to his aimless existence.
"Manchester by the Sea" takes a while to find its stride. That's mainly due to the way writer/director Kenneth Lonergan chooses to develop his characters. Like many directors who mix past and present, he inserts flashbacks to explain who the characters are and why they are the way they are. But these flashbacks are awkwardly inserted into the narrative, bringing the momentum to a very awkward halt on more than one occasion. Once all the pieces are in play, the film finds its groove.
As a playwright and stage director, it goes without saying that the acting is one of the high points. This is an almost entirely dialogue driven film, and as a result, relies on the actors to bring life to their characters. They succeed. Casey Affleck is getting Oscar buzz in the leading role, and while he's effective, it's not something legendary. Lucas Hedges is also very good, ably portraying a teenager who takes advantage of the situation, or makes light of it, until reality hits. Kyle Chandler is very good in a small but important role that gives the film the emotional foundation it requires to start. Michelle Williams is also getting Oscar attention, but her role is so small that it's hard to single her out. Despite the fact that this is the kind of small, indie production where she can shine, she can't match the presence of the other actors.
This is not a happy film, as you can imagine. It takes you into dark places that we can all relate to (who hasn't had a loved one die?) and asks questions with no easy answers. As much of a downer as it is, there is some biting, gallows humor that keeps things from becoming too depressing. Such as Lucas's attempts to have sex with his girlfriend (well, one of them), are constantly interrupted. And the most awkward meal since the "cat milking" scene in "Meet the Parents." As inappropriate as they might seem, they actually fit in quite nicely.
The film is too long and the flashbacks are not handled well. But the film has real power, and for those who are willing to take the journey, it won't be forgotten. It makes you wonder what happens after the cameras stop rolling.