When Ben Affleck adapted Dennis Lehane’s gritty crime novel “Gone Baby Gone” to the big screen in 2007, he established himself as a nascent directing talent and reinvigorated a career that had become a joke. He displayed a vice-like grasp of the material; his grip on Lehane’s pulpy gangster tale “Live by Night” on the other hand is depressingly weak. The young turk has given way to the jaded artiste, opting for formula, pretension and predictability.
Compounding the problem is Affleck’s decision to play the lead role, that of a World War I veteran turned small-time bank robber who re-invents himself as a big-time crime lord. It’s a shallow performance of a paper-thin character delivered via lazy and intrusive voice-over (did we learn nothing from “Daredevil”), a smug grin, and an unfortunate series of ill-fitting suits.
Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, the black-sheep son of a corrupt Boston police official (Brendan Gleeson). Joe’s a stick-up man having an affair with Emma (Sienna Miller), the moll of major crime boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). Naturally, the relationship ends badly, and Joe barely manages escape with his life and a short prison sentence.
Afterwards, he aligns himself with a rival Italian family and relocates to Florida, where he corners the rum-running trade and, anticipating the end of Prohibition, attempts to expand into the casino business, all while navigating waters populated by rival gangs, corrupt officials, and even the KKK. In between making deals and dealing violence, Joe woos Graciela (Zoe Saldana) the sister of his Cuban ally and tries to maneuver around a fallen ingenue-turned-evangelical revivalist (Elle Fanning).
There’s plenty there to work with, but what wound up on the screen is interminably dull and tedious – a sad surprise, since “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town,” and “Argo” all show that Affleck has the chops when it comes to pacing and tension. There’s very little momentum to be found in “Live by Night”; it plods from beat to beat, and gives too much time to think about how bored we’re getting. By the time he tries to deliver an unearned emotional blow in the final act, it’s too late for us to give a damn.
It’s one saving grace is a set of fine performances from an eclectic cast that also includes Chris Cooper, Chris Manning, Max Casella, Titus Welliver and Remo Girone, which are largely wasted. “Live by Night” is meant to be an epic tale of crime, prejudice, and opportunism and how they collide with the myth of the American Dream. Too bad it never makes us care.