Warner Brothers has made it no secret they’re hoping Ben Affleck can be the next Clint Eastwood, meaning they want him to write, act, direct and produce the studio’s more prestigious, but still mainstream-friendly fare. And do it while simultaneously filling the all-important role as a matinee idol.
The mostly respectable reviews and solid opening weekend grosses for Affleck’s sophomore feature The Town indicate they may have read the tea leaves correctly this time around.
Coming off the heels of Gone Baby Gone, The Town confirms Affleck’s penchant for injecting pulpy material with an unyieldingly seriousness verging on the sort of drabness that usually attracts Oscar’s attention. It is formula action filmmaking executed with the best intentions, and the best collaborators money can buy.
As with Gone Baby Gone, The Town rather self-evidently flashes (Berkeley-born) Affleck’s kinship with Baaah-stan’s working class, who are invariably shown skirting in and around the criminal underbelly.
From scene one, Affleck’s headlining bank robber mastermind Doug MacRay is organizing seamless stings with his four-man team. Though the robbery goes off with nary a hitch, he seems sadly resigned to his life’s path, one which in fact mirrors his incarcerated father’s. Ah, the all important father-son relationship.
Whereas Baby centered around a missing child, The Town is preoccupied with the proverbial absent parent. Just as Doug spends the whole movie deifying the mother that left him (a woman who, his jaundiced father disinterestedly informs him, was no better than a gutter rat), he is shown regenerating the cycle, repeatedly denying his paternity to the daughter of a glamorously ruined bar-dweller (Blake Lively, in the film’s most Amy Ryan-like performance).
If the relationships that don’t exist fuel Doug’s criminal activities, it’s the inconvenient relationships that insist upon his stasis which threaten his illicit livelihood. On the one hand is his destructive, love-you-like-a-brother connection to fellow thief James Coughlin (the red-hot Jeremy Renner, doing his best to ape James Cagney), who is also inconveniently the uncle of Doug’s child. On the other hand is the potentially transcendent relationship he develops with a fragile witness to one of Doug & Company’s heists, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall).
In short, The Town‘s fisticuffs are a Freudian mess. And that’s even before Pete Postlethwaite, as a flower-snipping mob boss, shows up to taunt Doug about why his father languishes in jail.
To my taste, these stabs at familial drama don’t elevate The Town beyond its run-of-the-mill story half as much as the film’s supporting performances (Lively shares the MVP title with Jon Hamm’s nonplussed FBI agent) and unimpeachable technical polish (the sleek cinematography comes courtesy Robert Elswit, who won an Oscar two years back for There Will Be Blood). In fact, the movie’s only crippling failure can be found in the charisma-void right at the center of the whole enterprise.
In other words, if Affleck can be said to be following in Clint Eastwood’s footsteps as an auteur, it’s because he’s learned to find ways to de-emphasize his limitations as an actor by surrounding himself with the best talent Warner Brothers’ money can buy.
Eric Henderson is a web producer and film blogger for WCCO.COM.