Bless his heart. Ben Affleck really tries, but he just doesn’t have it in him. The highest praise I can give him is to say that occasionally his films don’t disappoint (see Argo and The Town). He was serviceable in last year’s The Accountant, and he doesn’t bring an otherwise good movie down with his presence – but that’s about as complimentary as I can be. Live by Night looked to be a decent enough bit of escapism, but ultimately its mediocrity rendered it wholly ineffective.
Affleck stars as Joe Coughlin, a petty thief who finds himself unwittingly caught between two warring criminal factions in Prohibition era Boston. Irish boss Albert White and Italian kingpin Maso Pescatore are rival bootleggers who are at a virtual stalemate after mounting casualties on either side. Both men take a run at Joe, who prefers to remain neutral and above the fray. All along Joe has been having an affair with White’s girlfriend, his lover and accomplice. This never turns out well, and just as White closes in, Joe is nabbed on a botched heist, landing himself in prison on a three-year sentence.
He emerges from prison with a fresh mindset. Seeking to insulate himself from the lurking White, he aligns with Pescatore, agreeing to oversee his rum running operations down in Tampa. In Florida he meets Graciela (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek Beyond), sister to a local bootlegger with whom he partners. Joe and his best friend Dion soon corner the market; not so much avoiding the war in Boston as moving it to a sunnier locale. Joe’s business isn’t built for longevity, and if his foes don’t bring about his demise, the changing political climate may prove just as fatal.
Live by Night had potential, but ultimately it was clichéd and derivative. Visually it was slick, with a lush, glamorous setting but there was little substance. I’ve seen better episodes of Boardwalk Empire and Magic City. Affleck wrote and directed the movie, and for the first time I can say that I think he’s had a misstep in those roles. The aforementioned Argo and The Town were very good, but the trend does not continue here. It felt like Affleck inserted obligatory elements gleaned from other films of the genre and time period, leaving us with something thoroughly unremarkable. Zoe Saldana’s indistinct accent faded in and out, a detail right on par with the rest of the movie. Not a horrible movie, but not really worth seeing in theaters either. Perfect for Redbox. Grade: C