Ben Affleck is the rare movie star to develop a filmmaking style that’s informed by his screen presence. From his first pair of taut thrillers, “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town,” through his acclaimed real-life espionage saga “Argo,” Affleck’s movies as a director have been enhanced by a mixture of charisma and elegance, energizing dramatic events with a slick surface that has often elevated his performances as well.
At their worst, Affleck’s roles are stern and lifeless without soul, pretty sculptures with nothing inside. It was only a matter of time before he made a movie that embodied that lesser side of his career.
“Live By Night,” Affleck’s second adaptation of a Dennis Lehane crime novel, plays like an animatronic gangster movie, with lots of pretty pieces you’ve seen before and nothing particularly engaging about them. The saga of a WWI veteran who turns to a life of crime, his exploits stretching from Boston to Florida and eventually Cuba, the movie plays like a gorgeous pastiche of genre elements in search of a purpose.
“I left a soldier. I came home an outlaw,” mutters Joe Coughlin (Affleck), as eyes gaze out at sepia-toned wartime footage that fades to shots of crime in the opening minutes. Much of “Live By Night” takes its cues from Affleck chewing on these pulpy assertions, as Joe resists pressure to continue his criminal antics before giving in.
Polished by CGI to enhance his youthful appearance, Affleck scowls his way through glowing Prohibition-era scenery worthy of a perfume ad and embodies the struggle of Joe’s hard living with a stone-faced glare. The actor sticks himself with bland tough guy dialogue that sounds like it’s been cobbled together through Madlibs. His biggest resistance to getting pulled deeper into a life of crime comes when Joe musters, “I ain’t a gangsta…I stopped kissin’ rings a long time ago.”
Good luck with that one. In the first act, Joe finds himself caught up with a troublesome blond (Sienna Miller) and in the thick of Irish and Italian mob wars as he careens through a series of bank robberies before landing in jail, accused of killings he didn’t commit. His disapproving father (Brendan Gleeson, all too brief) is a police chief with little power to assist his wayward son. When he’s released, Joe has no choice but to accept work from Italian crime boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), who sends him to Tampa to become a rum runner.
It’s at this point, somewhere near the beginning of the second act, that “Live By Night” has laid out all its cards: Chugging along on the gorgeous imagery of cinematographer Robert Richardson (“Hugo”), the movie looks gorgeous and delivers a handful of well-choreographed violent showdowns, but that’s rarely enough to energize this sleepy, humorless drama in gangster movie clothing.
When Joe’s attempt to flee Boston with his girlfriend goes nowhere, he settles into a grim underworld in Florida, where he’s teamed up with another two-bit wise guy (a mustachioed Chris Messina, seemingly cast as comic relief but given few moments of levity) and finds a new lover (Zoe Saldana, who dotes over the troubled anti-hero on cue). Faced with potential resistance to the construction of a casino, Joe forms a passive-aggressive relationship with the local police chief (Chris Cooper), whose born-again Christian daughter (Elle Fanning) creates new problems for the expansion of the criminal empire that pays Joe’s bills.
Eventually, Joe grows weary of his career all over again and plots another exit.
The whole movie unfolds like a pretty shrug of genre motifs, creaking along with the gears of a bland screenplay and lifelessness performances. Affleck plunders clichés left and right, and the swooning shots of his character making love or gazing longingly at nothing in particular don’t do any favors to the paper-thin drama. “I got one guaranteed life and I was going to live it,” Joe announces in voiceover, but it’s hard to believe him based on the emptiness of this plot.
“Live By Night” has a few bright spots, particularly with respect to its detailed period dressing — magnificent art direction, smooth jazz cues — and the occasional gripping showdown. One jarring car chase early on has a particularly thrilling sense of motion, a reminder that Affleck’s already proven he can deliver a fast and fun ride, but this one’s short-lived.
Ultimately, “Live By Night” doesn’t suggest Affleck’s lost his groove so much as that his groove has its limits. Saddled with derivative material, he can’t seem to find a fresh approach. It’s telling that the next project that finds him on both sides of the camera is “The Batman,” a studio-produced blockbuster hardly expected to take big risks. Affleck may not be a total sellout, but he’s the kind of steady-handed entertainer equally capable of making smart movies and forgettable ones depending on the task at hand. It remains to be seen if “Live By Night” is the anomaly or a regrettable new chapter in an otherwise satisfying career of intelligent escapism.
“Live By Night” opens theatrically December 25.