Monday, September 20, 2010

The Town (2010, Ben Affleck)

One of the biggest surprises of 2007 was the discovery of Ben Affleck as a serious filmmaker. Some would argue that much of the success of Affleck’s debut feature Gone Baby Gone was due to some fine acting and strong source material by Dennis Lehane, but Affleck was to be commended for eliciting those performances from his cast and finding the right tone and style for the material. Unfortunately, he can’t replicate this success with his follow-up film The Town. There are points in the film where he seems to be chasing after the same downbeat thriller vibe, but the magic never quite happens.

Part of the problem is that the source material just isn’t as rich as Gone Baby Gone. Whereas the earlier film distinguished itself by the way it dealt with the morality behind its characters’ actions, here he’s working with little more than a boilerplate heist movie, with all the off-the-shelf elements that genre implies. Hero who wants to escape his life? Check. Tenacious cop bearing down on our hero just as he’s trying to go straight? Yup. Loose-cannon best friend who becomes more of a liability as the story progresses? You betcha. Final big job to end all big jobs? Obviously.

That’s not to say that it’s impossible for a formulaic heist movie to be good. Hell, considering all the clich├ęs it embraces, Heat is pretty much the Love, Actually of the genre. But when the story elements are so familiar, the only way a heist movie can distinguish itself is with style and filmmaking brio. And Affleck just isn’t a strong enough filmmaker to sell this material in a way that makes it feel exciting. The characters in the film are either off-the-shelf (Jon Hamm’s all-business FBI agent, Jeremy Renner’s unstable crook, et al), or worse, unbelievable. This is especially true of Affleck’s character, a career criminal who comes off less like a hard-bitten townie than a secular saint, pining for his lost mother and forever looking for a way out of his life.
Personally, I think the romance between Affleck and Hall would have been more compelling had Affleck’s character been a more honest-to-goodness bad boy. Hall plays a bank manager whose life is shaken up when Affleck and his gang briefly take her hostage during a heist, and in the film she seems to respond primarily to Affleck’s goodness. However, I think the dynamic could have been thought-provoking if instead of showing her to be traumatized by the abduction, it could have kick-started a kind of hunger for danger that manifested itself in her going after dangerous men. It certainly would have felt less drippy than it feels in The Town, with the added bonus of not leading to the film’s almost laughable final minute.

I recently told a friend that I’ve gotten to the point in my life as a movie lover that I’d rather see a movie that people seem to either love or hate (but respond to strongly either way) than a movie about which most people seem to be fairly lukewarm. I wasn’t talking about The Town when I made this statement, but I could have been, since it’s a movie that falls resolutely into the latter category. It’s not bad, and certainly not offensive, but it’s so safe and middle-of-the-road that it doesn’t feel particularly necessary- even the climactic “big job” is underwhelming despite an intriguing setup. Most of the pleasures of The Town are borrowed pleasures, attributable more to the genre itself than anything special the film does. I never thought I’d say this a decade ago, but I honestly expected more from Ben Affleck.

Rating: 5 out of 10.

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