Unlike The Accountant, which is dumb in a coked-up Eighties action movie way, Live By Night is dumb in a self-important Oscar bait kind of way. Ben Affleck tries to make a movie that both pays homage to classic gangster films—The Godfather but for the Irish mob except that movie already exists and it’s called The Departed—and allows him to play the most Noble And Suffering Anti-Hero in gangster cinema history. Adapted by Affleck from a novel by Dennis Lehane, it’s possible some of this is Lehane’s fault, since he wrote the story. Or it’s possible that every choice Affleck made as a writer, director, and actor is calculated for maximum ego boost.
You can tell this a novel adaptation because there is near-constant voice-over throughout the movie. It’s a common problem with adaptations, especially of novels as writers struggle to synthesize the internal monologue aspect of novel writing with the visual medium of film. But there is so much voice-over in Live By Night Affleck might as well have made an audiobook. And it’s so f*cking boring I can’t even describe it, but I’ll try: It’s somewhere between listening to someone tell you about their dream last night and watching golf on TV. (Lainey: I watch golf on TV.)
When we meet Joe Coughlin he’s a disillusioned World War I veteran who becomes a bank robber because he doesn’t want to take orders anymore because he’s been to war and he’s seen that it’s just a bunch of poor saps dying so the rich can get richer. Joe Coughlin is like, so woke, bro. He’s also carrying on an affair with Emma (Sienna Miller), the girlfriend of Irish Mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister, MI-5). After a bank robbery goes bad and Emma turns on Joe, he ends up in jail, albeit with a shortened sentence courtesy his police superintendent father (Brendan Gleeson, and the best thing Live By Night has going for it is a tremendous cast where even small roles are played by top-shelf actors).
And that’s just the prologue, as Joe gets out of jail and moves to Tampa to bootleg rum for the Italian mob as part of a plot to get back at Albert White. Live By Night manages to be both boring and over-complicated, as we’re walked through years of Joe being The Best Gangster and moving in with his Cuban bootlegging partner’s sister, Graciela (Zoe Saldana). Joe is in business with the Cubans, and living with a Cuban woman, and he hangs out in the black part of town and goes to Afro-Cuban clubs, which of course brings him into conflict with the KKK.
Woke Gangster Bae Joe takes down the KKK, though, in about fifteen minutes of screen time. And then he’s on to beefing with a tent revival preacher (Elle Fanning) over a casino he wants to put in the new Ritz hotel, except the preacher is the daughter of the local sheriff Joe helped get clean after her Hollywood dream went the way those things usually do. There is so much happening in this movie, but this feels like the part that should have been the focus of the whole thing, as it has the most interesting character development and also provides the backbone for the act-three conflict.
A huge problem with Live By Night is that we never see Joe do the work. The Godfather is all about the work of organized crime—the strategy, the making of alliances and deals, the planning of hits and busts, and then the execution of those plans. There’s only one sequence in Live By Night that really pops, a hotel shoot-out in act three, because we get to see the work of it, as Joe reveals strategy that relies on information learned earlier in the film, and then the plan unfolds and we see Joe and his men actively fight their way through the hotel.
Work is a popular topic around here, and it should be a more popular topic in film. John Wick is f*cking amazing and that movie is almost entirely John Wick At Work. Live By Night, though, doesn’t want to be about Joe Coughlin at work. Affleck has no interest in actually showing us Joe doing his job, unless his job entails shooting up the KKK or racist mob bosses. Affleck’s investment in the story is to create and portray an anti-hero redeemed by his progressivism and while that’s not inherently bad, the execution is severely lacking. So, as is usually my recommendation, skip Live By Night and watch John Wick instead.
Attached - Ben Affleck at the Paris premiere of Live By Night with Chris Messina today.