The title of Ben Affleck‘s new gangster epic has about as much to do with the plot of the film as his character’s narrative arc has to do with a banana. Nothing. Live By Night is very good-looking, well dressed but clearly overrated. A bit like Affleck himself, unfortunately, as he gets lost swanning around in dozens of exquisitely contemporaneous costumes and forgets to, you know, actually tell a story.
The production design, cinematography and, in particular, the script are all really quite good, testament to Affleck as a writer, but perhaps he falls foul of the curse of biting off more than you can chew. Wearing the hats (Oh, he loves wearing hats in this movie) of writer, director AND lead actor is a tall order, even for someone as talented and experienced as he is, and maybe one too many as there is just something lacking here.
An excellent cast, including an always-full-of-scene-stealing-charisma Brendan Gleeson, veteran pathos from Chris Cooper, sustainable sass from Sienna Miller, New York chomping grit from Chris Messina, an underused balance of delicacy and unhinged fervour by Elle Fanning and a siren-like love interest from Zoe Saldana, can do nothing to elevate this supposedly ‘epic’ picture from the realm of valiant but failed attempt.
It’s a well enough put together film, like a decently complex jigsaw that’s finished with all the right pieces in place but the picture that it forms isn’t all that impressive considering all the work that went into making it. The feeling that Affleck was just having too much fun dressing up, playing gangsters, getting all the girls and forgot to act cannot be escaped. His character, despite attempts to set him up as a First World War veteran recovering from the horrors of battle and determined never to follow orders to kill again are blown out of the water when he starts working for a mob boss and killing people. To say his character and subsequently the film upon which it is based is garbled is to do a disservice to any honest hard-working garbler. This is simply just a narrative mess.
The various genre tropes that are carted out – non-linear storytelling, the rise and fall/rags to riches trajectory – all end up tasting stale and well past their sell-by-dates. Morally a more ambiguous, nay ambivalent, character you may never find. That and the considerable violence on display just feels gratuitous. There’s no reason for him to do any of what he does, other than selfish gain. In order for that to work you need to actually care about your protagonist but how can you be expected to care what happens to someone when they don’t seem to care about anything themselves?
If Argo was overrated, at least it was still a pretty compelling film. This suffers all the damage of the former without any waft of the latter. Maybe there wasn’t space for another take on the gangster epic, maybe it missed its window by a few years or maybe this just ain’t it. In any case, they say you can’t polish a turd, well, this one is quite shiny.