Ben Affleck rules Florida -but not his accent- in ‘Live by Night’ (review)

“I signed up to fight in the war. I went away a soldier, I came home an outlaw.”

We are in full swing of 2017, and now that a lot of the films that debuted in select screenings last December are finally in theaters nationwide, we’re finally getting our fresh batch of what the new year has to offer. With so many films that fans are anticipating for this year, it’s going to be difficult trying to watch every single one, for fear of missing just one of them. From superhero films to dramas to horror to sci-fi, this year is definitely going to be one for cinema. One of those first fruits that we are offered for our viewing pleasure is Ben Affleck’s Live by Night.

The film is set in the backdrop of the Roaring `20s, and Prohibition hasn’t stopped the flow of booze in an underground network of gangster-run speakeasies. The opportunity to gain power and money is there for any man with enough ambition and nerve, and Joe Coughlin (Affleck), the son of the Boston Police superintendent, long ago turned his back on his strict upbringing for the spoils of being an outlaw. But even among criminals there are rules, and Joe breaks a big one: crossing a powerful mob boss by stealing his money and his moll.

The film holds a really familiar, and almost homely feel to it. Not for its content and booze and fighting (unless you’ve been to my family’s house around the holidays), but in the way the story was told, and the familiarity it holds to those who grew up with these types of films. The stories that we all know, such as 1972’s The Godfather, 1990’s Miller’s Crossing, 1993’s Carlito’s Way and Blood In, Blood Out, 1991 New Jack City, and many others, lined our craniums with what life was like during that time period as a gangster. Affleck, as a director, lends to that same spirit in this film, as the story that unfolds melts beautifully into that same mural that was brought into cinematic existence so long ago.

As a director, I feel that Affleck hit the story out of the park…or the pak. As an actor, he certainly strives for a genuine and committed performance, portraying the modest yet ruthless mobster Joe Coughlin. Unfortunately, due to the era and city that the film takes place in, that one little nitpick ends up being the one thing that most people will probably not get past: his accent. Affleck has had his share of history when it comes to the accents that he uses in his films. More than most, he’s pretty spot on, with well-accented performances in such films as 1997’s Good Will Hunting, and his completely underrated performance in 2010’s The Company Men. But then, there are… others.

Were talking about the other performances that don’t really hit the bar in terms of consistent accents. Films that Affleck may have nailed the tongue of the period or city at some point in the film, but didn’t really stick with it throughout the rest of the film. We’re talking about films like 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, his performance in 2010’s The Town, and who can forget the trainwreck of a film, altogether, where his accent was the least of the problems: 2003’s Gigli. So on a scale from Gigli to The Company Men, I’d say his performance in Live by Night falls somewhere in the area of 2001’s Pearl Harbor: it has an great storyline, but the accents are so inconsistent and muddled, that it tends to take away from the overall experience.

The interesting thing, however, is that everyone else in the film have incredible accents! From Brendan Gleeson’s natural Irish accent, to Zoe Saldana’s wonderful Cuban accent, to Sienna Miller’s incredible and believable Irish accent. The actors and actresses that were cast honed their incredible vocal talents for the film to create moments of clear credibility for the period the film takes place. I found myself having to verify that Miller wasn’t Irish, as her accent seemed spot on like most Irish-born actors and actresses, only proving how incredible her performance was. Saldana’s role in the film was also impressive, although my only issue with her was that we didn’t get a chance to hear her speak more Spanish. We hear it once throughout the whole film, but aside from that one moment, which she does flawlessly, we’re left with just her Spanish accent throughout the film.

Other great performances throughout the film came from Chris Cooper, who seems to have a natural knack for his accents. I wasn’t too fond of Elle Fanning’s accent, although her performance was key to the overall story. Being a girl that was born and raised in Florida, I expected her to have a similar accent as her dad (Chris Cooper), but unfortunately what was received was just her normal speaking voice.

Overall, the film was a great start to the new year in terms of cinema. Live by Night runs through the same channels that brought us the great gangster flicks of the past, and delivers a compelling story of the life that you may leave, but never leaves you. The film does run a bit long, and takes its time getting to the places it needs to get to, but the tale is a timeless one that should never be forgotten. Minus the accent-blunder, Live by Night will bring moviegoers back to a time when cinema was at its grittiest, and storytelling consisted of bullets and love. Live by Night will remind fans why Michael Corleone knew what he was talking about in 1990’s The Godfather Part III: “Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.”

Rating: 4/5 Atoms

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