The concept of honor among thieves is the cornerstone of "Live by Night," a Roaring '20s crime story whose kingpin filmmaker (Ben Affleck as director and leading man) appears to have been corrupted by absolute power.
Swanking about in dressy fedoras and mammoth shoulder-padded summer suits that recall the enormous white outfit David Byrne wore in the "Stop Making Sense" concert film, Affleck seems determined to stand out on camera shot after lingering shot, a big star in every sense of the word.
He has cast himself as a very heroic antihero. He plays Joe Coughlin, a World War I veteran who entered the military as the patriotic son of a Boston police official (Brendan Gleeson in a throwaway role) and returned an outlaw. "I don't know much about honest work," he admits to floozy Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), whose sugar daddy is the sort of mob kingpin you don't want to annoy.
After a series of broad daylight walk-by hits and bank jobs with highly flammable Model T getaway vehicles, Joe's options in New England gangster circles run dry. A better future seems to await him in the Sunshine State, making and marketing Prohibition rum with ingredients smuggled from Havana and building a vast gaming casino. He has less opposition from the live-and-let-live sheriff (Chris Cooper) than the Ku Klux Klan, who throw pipe bombs into Joe's favorite interracial nightspots.
Equally offended by Joe's status as "a Papist" and his interracial love affair with a Cuban beauty (Zoe Saldana), their racism and bigotry is more distasteful than his outright manslaughter. With his trigger-happy henchman (Chris Messina) at his side, Joe rarely shoots his business opponents personally, so he tries to negotiate rather than assassinate. Briefly, anyway.
Trimmed down from a 400-page novel by Dennis Lehane, the film has a swarm of interesting denizens and plot ingredients. But it doesn't assemble them into an especially coherent package.
Perhaps the novel never possessed strong movie potential. Lehane, whose work usually reflects present-day social concerns (he wrote the source novel for the Oscar-winning "Mystic River"), seems to draw Affleck into a chronological compromise. The clothes, cars and furniture that adorn the production all look as shiny and polished as priceless prop shop museum pieces. But the speech sounds unusually up to date, even in Affleck's recurring voice-over explanations of what, why and how things are proceeding.
Worse, the narrative point of view lacks the old school pulp thrills of the Coen brothers' classic "Miller's Crossing," which was up-to-the-minute and wonderfully antique at once. The center of the story swings like a pendulum from mobsters conducting serious business to romance, at times feeling like a Nicholas Sparks movie about a great family man who happens to be a crime kingpin. Affleck fared much better in his directing debut, 2007's "Gone Baby Gone," based on another Lehane crime novel. On that project he stayed behind the camera and left the acting to his extravagantly talented young brother Casey.
Despite the narrative's frequent changes of focus, some scenes are outstandingly effective. The action builds relentlessly until an 11th hour Tommy gun battle. Elle Fanning appears in entertaining but all-too-brief episodes as the sheriff's teenage daughter, traveling from expectant youth to a melodramatic crisis and then a dubious salvation on the faith preacher circuit. Affleck's dialogue with her seems to sharpen his own focus on performing. And as his sarcastic, volatile early love, Miller gives the screen a squirt of sour lemon with every line.
They are welcome contributors on the fringes of a film that too often turns puzzling rather than thrilling.
'LIVE BY NIGHT'
2 out of 4 stars
Rating: R for strong violence, language throughout and some sexuality/nudity.
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