Live by Night: It looks and feels like a depression-era gangster flick in the vein of Road to Perdition and The Untouchables. What it really is: A gimmicky critique of contemporary issues like racial tensions, white privilege, immigration, intermarriage, televangelism, among others. There’s even an implicit address of the 2014 celebrity hack.
Which would have been well and good if it didn’t feel like an endless jumbled mess. Live by Night starring Ben Affleck is adapted from a 2012 novel of the same name by American author Dennis Lehane. He is the same guy behind Affleck’s directorial debut Gone Baby Gone, and other books-turned-films such as Mystic River and Shutter Island.
14 years on since the disastrous Gigli, Ben Affleck is still laughable as a gangster. I didn’t find him persuasive as an autistic jiu jitsu-trained numbers savant in last year’s The Accountant, but I still enjoyed most of that movie. Here he just does not fit the role. At all. He is flippant, impulsive and overall shallow. And this time, unlike in The Accountant, Affleck’s performance manages to bring down the whole movie experience.
I’d say Ben Affleck owes a debt of gratitude to the director for casting him as the lead, but the director is Ben Affleck. In fact he even wrote and co-produced the whole thing in a (cue the Sad Affleck memes) shambolic effort at auteurism. But hey, after a Best Picture for Argo and critical praise for a poignant showing in Gone Girl, the Hollywood world is Ben Affleck’s oyster.
A lot is wrong with Live by Night. Its scope is too broad, its storytelling too eager to please. In just over two hours, the film crams in all the complex and intricate plots of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire doing away with the grace, subtlety and gripping action that characterized that show.
With all that said, I still can’t look past the ill-advised casting choices for this movie. I could tell Sienna Miller’s fake Irish accent even from this side of Earth’s hemisphere, singer Miguel cannot act to save his life, and Chris Messina is a poor man’s Joe Pesci. Even the usually reliable Zoe Saldana falls short.
But in the midst of all this is Elle Fanning. Her incredible performance as a Prohibition-era false prophet is a little ray of sunshine. You can even tell that she lifts Affleck’s performance in their scenes together. If only her character was given the deserving attention of the script and its writer.
In the end Live by Night turns out to be a hollow shell; it looks like the real deal from the outside, but in reality lacks the substance to make it worthwhile.