If you enjoy dumb things, especially dumb things that don’t realize how dumb they are, then you’ll probably have a lot of fun with Live By Night. This is strange to say about a Ben Affleck movie, as thus far his directorial output has ranged from kinda smart (Gone Baby Gone) to smartly dumb (The Town) to smart dumbed down to an Oscar-y sheen (Argo) — all quite enjoyable. But his latest is something new. Adapted by Affleck from a novel by Dennis Lehane — as was Gone Baby Gone — Live By Night looks more like Ben Affleck was watching HBO late one night and thought “This is badass, but what if they were also from Boston?”
And thus Live By Night is this strange, dropped-ahsploitation version of Boardwalk Empire that seems like it was conceived by Troy Duffy and executed by HBO’s finest production team. It looks like Affleck created Live By Night’s protagonist, Joe Coughlin, by combining Boardwalk Empire‘s scarred WWI vet with a heart of gold (Richard Harrow), its broken WWI vet criminal striver (Jimmy Darmody), and its criminal mastermind (Nucky Thompson) into one character, and then gave him a Boston accent and a Scarface attitude. “All I gawt in this world is my word and my bawlls, and I’m sure as fack nawt gonna break em fa you queahs! You point yoah fackin fingah and say *I’m* the bad guy? The fack?”
I think Live By Night would’ve worked wonderfully as an HBO series (mainly because it already did). But shrunk down to movie form, all the compelling side stories and character vignettes are trimmed away and we’re left with a montage of five minute conflicts that Ben Affleck resolves by shooting everyone, with the help of his comical sidekick, played by Chris Messina. Afterwards he’ll lick his wounds, wax philosophical, and kiss a dame. Women in this story existing mainly to serve as motivations, trophies, or McGuffins. Coughlin’s first sexy time with the Cuban temptress, Graciela (played by Zoe Saldana), is set, hilariously, to swelling strings and operatic singing, as if Ben Affleck’s dick was the Maltese Falcon. After that, Graciela shows up periodically to say she’s worried about Joe and describe her latest altruistic venture, whether it be Cuban independence or building a battered women’s shelter. Think Kelly McDonald’s character in Boardwalk Empire, but if she was only allowed five minutes of screen time and had to rush through all the bullet points.
Graciela basically performs the same function as some fedora guy on Reddit’s ethnic girlfriend, rarely seen or heard from but providing living proof of his egalitarian nature. (“The only colah I see is green,” I like to imagine Joe Coughlin growling.) The funniest moment of the film, bar none, is when some rival bad guy sneers at Affleck, “Hey Coughlin, is your girlfriend a spic or a n*gger?” To which Affleck growls “…both,” and shoots him dead. Magical.
Live By Night tips its hand when its characters keep referring to things that we haven’t actually seen happen, like when Graciela (pre-sexy times) tells Affleck “We know you do a lot of good in this town…” or when Elle Fanning, as the pretty and innocent daughter of the town sheriff (Chris Cooper) says to him, “My father always said there was good in you.”
Which is weird, because we the viewers have only seen Affleck’s character shoot people, sell booze, bang chicks, rob card games, wear cool hats, and wink at the audience (“M’lady.”). He’s a gangster with a heart of gold, they just yadda yadda’d the heart of gold part. “He buys poah people food and loves dahkies, who cayuhs? Fack you.”
Ben Affleck looks sort of funny in all the wide-brimmed hats and period costumes. Whereas actor-sized actors like Ryan Gosling or Michael Pitt make these clothes look impossibly cool, on a normie-sized galoot with broad shoulders like 6’4″ Ben Affleck, they look less like cool hats and more like one of those finger condoms my school librarian used to wear to keep from getting papercuts. The costumes wear him, like photobooth props. Actually, it’s kind of nice to know that not every handsome actor can pull them off.