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Movie Review: #LiveByNight

A Prohibition-era gangster battles other organized crime bosses while trying to protect his burgeoning business and family.

Review by Matt Cummings

If the dozens of trailers for Live By Night convinced you of its supposed merits, you weren't alone. I arrived my screening ready to pin a medal on it and anoint it as the new Godfather, a tall order in hindsight. But it's just another passable but utterly forgettable tale, infused with too many characters who don't have time to shine beyond their fractured existences, and led by an anti-hero who really isn't one.

As Prohibition Chicago shudders under the weight of a monumental gangster blood bath, the tough-minded but opportunistic Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) has other plans: he wants the hardheaded Emma (Sienna Miller) who's currently dating the much older mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister) and the chance to merely rob banks and make his money without interference from the real gangs. But when he's ratted out and learns that Emma has been killed, Coughlin swears vengeance against White by promising his execution to the Italian boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Forming an unholy alliance with Pescatore brings Joe into contact with the Cuban rum runners who can bankrupt White, making Joe extremely powerful and Maso very wealthy. Soon, Joe becomes enamored with the Cuban Craciela (Zoe Saldana) whose brother is smuggling the rum into Florida. As the two become close, Joe must decide is White is still worth the effort to execute, but also becomes aware that Maso wants to remove him from the picture after a casino deal dies. The result will see a renewal of Chicago-style violence in Florida, as Joe and his allies wage a war not just to maintain their financial holding but to survive another day.

Live By Night is Affleck's fourth as director, and it's clearly last behind other more recent and far better films. It's clunky, long-winded, and features way too many characters to keep track, none of whom have enough screen time to breathe. In movies like The Town and Argo, Affleck sharply narrowed the amount of storylines to keep those movies moving. Here, we get long scenes of classic autos being driven down long roads as a sort of vehicular transition to the next scene that might look and sound amazing but lack any emotional gravitas. That's the nagging core behind Live By Night: where The Godfather made similar moves, it works far better because the characters are given a chance to breathe. There's few scenes here without Affleck, and when those happen - such as the terrific Chris Cooper as a local sheriff and Elle Fanning as his daughter - are mesmerizing. They need their own movie, which would have been far more compelling than what Affleck crams into 128 minutes. In fact, nearly everyone here needs more screen time - including the nearly unrecognizable Miller - who gets a grand total of 10 minutes, bookended in an almost "forgot you" epilogue.

Plot devices are thrown around like mobster cash in Live By Night, from incriminating pictures that arrive all too conveniently to random acts of violence made to cleanse the screen of unneeded dead weight. There are pseudo cameos as well, such as the excellent Brendan Gleeson as Joe's detective father, which again needed a whole movie to tell its complicated father-son story. But Live By Night couldn't care less about these and several others lines, because this supposed to be Affleck's movie and yet he couldn't be more outplayed in nearly every scene. Saldana is sultry and sophisticated in every way that Joe is violent, and Fanning's still grooving from her fantastic performance in The Neon Demon. Cooper produces the perfect aura of a cop who doesn't think he's corruptible but whose arc is a hidden gem until it too becomes something else for Joe to smash.

And yet I'd be lying if I didn't enjoy a lot of Live By Night. Affleck's script from author Dennis Lehane contains some excellent one-liners, and Affleck's chemistry with Chris Messina as Joe's right-hand man are unexpectedly fun. The set design and use of classic autos give the film an epic DP Robert Richardson bathes every scene in 1920's elegance. But again there's so much going on here - including a small war with the KKK and Saldana's ill-conceived and executed human rights movement to house abandoned Cuban women - that any character center Affleck has almost becomes a distraction. He still features the huge physique of Batman and looks really uncomfortable in the various dapper attire that Costume Designer Jaqueline West has gifted him. More importantly, Joe seems himself as an outlaw that can play both sides but who's only ultimately accountable to himself. That comes off in weird ways, such as the KKK subplot, which he attacks with less than a persuasive resolution. Much like the rest of the film, it's interesting but comes off as a random.

The ending of Live By Night also suffers from this randomness, under cutting what we all know is coming: a final bloody battle where Joe seems to be in the right place at the right time, trapped in a building he doesn't necessarily know and one the audience has never seen. Had Coughlin's trilogy actually gotten a sequel, we might have been treated to something more epic, but instead it's crushed into a single solid but unremarkable film. But a film like this doesn't happen unless a studio thinks it's got an Oscar winner in the mix, and from that perspective, Live By Night could decidely be considered a failure. That's too bad but it's entirely understandable, especially when you consider that an entire arc featuring Bosch's Titus Welliver was cut from the final print.

Live By Night is solid gangster entertainment, but it's wholly unsuited for a deep Oscar run. It lack an emotional heft, crams too many characters into too few scenes, and ignores its supporting actors in favor of a larger and less interesting plot. It proves that sometimes one man running a show - and starring in it - needs more a few more cooks in its kitchen to turn it into something special. Instead, we get a slightly above average meal and not the lavish setting we were promised from its many trailers. Wait for this one on home video, and catch some real Oscar candidates duke it out at your local theater.

Live By Night is rated R for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity and has a runtime of 128 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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