If “Live by Night” were as well-written as it is well-designed, it might achieve classic status. Alas, this handsome movie is a stiff.
Maybe it looked good on paper, in the form of Dennis Lehane’s crime novel. But in telescoping the material down to two-hour form, screenwriter-director Ben Affleck has given us a series of scenes that move the plot along — and achieve almost nothing else.
Affleck plays the lead, Joe Coughlin, a World War I vet whose wartime experiences made him wary of following orders. A postwar career of bank robbery, however, leads him right into the order-giving trajectory of two of Boston’s big-time mobsters.
Joe gets on the wrong side of the Irish gang leader (a scary Robert Glenister) by dating the man’s mistress (Sienna Miller). This means the rival godfather (Remo Girone) can blackmail Joe.
The story takes a turn toward Florida in its later stages, as Joe and his loyal bagman (Chris Messina) takes over the Tampa operation and dream about building a casino that could flourish after Prohibition is repealed.
The web gets really tangled down there. Joe must deal with a local law-enforcement honcho (Chris Cooper, giving the most thought-out performance in the movie). This guy’s got a daughter (Elle Fanning) whose Hollywood dreams will come back to haunt Joe.
Joe also meets a Cuban woman (Zoe Saldana) and runs afoul of a Ku Klux Klan leader (scene-stealing Matthew Maher). Yes, there’s a lot going on — way, way too much for a 129-minute movie.
The rushed pace is bad enough, but the characters are ciphers, too. Affleck’s performance comes to life only occasionally, when he allows a flicker of humor to enter the room or when he lines up with the have-nots (in this case, the immigrants) against the haves. It doesn’t help that he looks so bulked-up with Batman muscle that he dwarfs his co-stars.
Let’s give kudos to production designer Jess Gonchor and costume designer Jacqueline West, who really earn their keep here. And yet, even these impressive efforts look cold and brand-new, a backdrop rather than a fully-imagined world.
Affleck’s directing career, which began with Lehane’s “Gone Baby Gone” and includes the Oscar-winning “Argo,” had been a promising moonlighting job for him. “Live by Night” is a puzzling misstep by comparison.
“Live by Night” (1 1/2 stars)
A stiff adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel about a Boston mobster (Ben Affleck) who goes to Florida in Prohibition times. Affleck also directed the film, and it seems so rushed and superficial that nothing functions beyond the dutiful advancing of the plot. With Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper.
Rating: R, for violence, subject matter
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Pacific Place, Sundance Cinemas, Thornton Place Stadium and Cascade Mall