Title: Live by Night
Describe This Movie In One Simpsons Quote:
Krusty: Whaddya got in mind? Sexy broad? Gangster octopus?
Brief Plot Synopsis: Man, it feels good to be a gangster.
Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: Two and a half sets of curtains out of five.
Tagline: "The American Dream has a price."
Better Tagline: "Crime doesn't pay, except when it does, but then it doesn't again."
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: Despite being (or perhaps because he's) the son of a prominent Boston deputy commissioner, Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is mostly content to spend his days doing crimes and making time with Emma (Sienna Miller), the girlfriend of Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). Predictably, this ends poorly for them both, and Joe – after a brief prison stint – signs on with Italian gangster Maso Pecatore (Remo Girone) and is sent to Ybor City in Tampa, Florida, to run the Mafia’s burgeoning rum racket. There, Joe contends with the local sheriff (Chris Cooper), the KKK and his attraction to Graciela (Zoe Saldana), sister of the local Cuban crime boss.
"Critical" Analysis: Live by Night is (director) Ben Affleck’s fourth effort, and it’s an ambitious one. Coughlin’s story, based on Dennis Lehane’s novel, takes us from Prohibition-era Boston to…Prohibition-era Florida, the latter stuffed with enough speakeasy dance montages to populate a Steve Winwood video. It’s a sprawling effort that nonetheless often feels stilted, in many ways thanks to (actor) Ben Affleck himself.
Because honestly, there’s not all that much wrong with Affleck’s writing or directing. The script falls prey to many clichés, but this isn’t surprising given how hamstrung by convention the gangster genre has become, and Affleck has shown a steady and often inspired hand with films like Argo and The Town. He’s more assured here, and is clearly aiming to make Live by Night his prestige picture. This doesn’t happen, for a few reasons.
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One doesn't want to waste too much time comparing adaptations to their source material because there's always the threat of the desperate "What about the house elf rebellion/Tom Bombadil/Holly Golightly's self-actualization?" undercurrent to it. An author can provide things like subtlety and shading over the course of 600 pages that simply aren't available to a director in the space of two hours. It's therefore unfortunately convenient for Live by Night that "book Joe" and "movie Joe" are equally loathsome.
The promotional campaign for the film goes to great lengths to describe Coughlin as a “good man” irretrievably tainted by a series of choices he’s made when, actually, he was pretty much tainted from the get-go. For example, Graciela, worried Joe is about to bump off Sheriff Figgis’s anti-gambling crusader daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning), pines for the “real Joe.” Responsible for the deaths of two cops, the “real” Joe nonetheless is able to get away with a three-year sentence because Dad has dirt on the chief investigator. And in Ybor City, Coughlin himself acts like it's distasteful to blackmail the sheriff to let him go after a local Klan leader, but does it anyway.
The only decent behavior Joe exhibits is in the opening voiceover, when he talks about volunteering for World War I. That experience taught him never to take orders again, and from that point on, he’s a criminal. Does he occasionally stick up mob poker games? Sure, but he also robs banks and shoots at cops. Joe Coughlin was a bad dude long before he got to Florida, though you could certainly make the argument Florida brings out the worst in everybody.
And even if we wanted to defend the thesis that this interpretation was intended by Lehane and Affleck, the lead performance doesn’t support it. Maybe it’s because he’s channeling most of his energy into behind-the-camera activities, but Affleck’s recent roles (Batman, Christian Wolff, Nick Dunne) haven’t required much of an emotive stretch, and his Joe Coughlin is strangely passionless, which is exactly the opposite of what's required to engage us beyond the visceral reactions and the countless aerial shots.