Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Why Ben Affleck Should Be Given Some Slack

So, I saw The Town. It's a really good movie. Is it a masterpiece? No. Is it as good as Gone Baby Gone, Affleck's directorial debut? No, but then I'm not sure it's trying to be as emotionally complex as that film, so it's not really a fair comparison. What The Town is is a solid, entertaining, satisfying heist film, with characters and dialogue that are richer than usual for the genre. But when I talk to some people about the film, they give me this look. This look that says, "Waitaminute, Ben Affleck made a good movie? Really?" and I really can't figure out why it's been so fucking hard for this guy to get any respect at all.

Let's go back to the beginning. Not the very beginning, because I don't think anyone who saw him as a child in Voyage of the Mimi thought, "That pre-teen is a major douchebag."

That kid? Major prick.

Really the first time anyone took any notice of him was in two films; School Ties and Dazed and Confused. Neither was a huge role, but in Dazed...he was supposed to be a prick, and you know what? He did his job. He was a colossal prick. He hooked up with Kevin Smith around this time, appearing as another colossal prick in Mallrats. and once again, he was good. But maybe this is where it started. Maybe he had made enough of an impression as a prick to irrevocably imprint him as one in the public eye. But I don't really buy into that, because it's not like any of these films were huge enough to make that big an impact on anyone's career. They may be cult faves (okay, not School Ties) but the appeal they have today has come over years.

Next came Chasing Amy. I like Kevin Smith, but it's fair to call He's not a terribly sophisticated writer, and he certainly has no visual flair, but he does have an earthy realism to his writing, and some skill at examining certain relationships. Chasing Amy is by far his most complex, funny, and all around successful film. And you know what? Affleck is fucking great in it. He's vulnerable, he's relatable, he convincingly portrays a guy who falls in love with a woman he is absolutely in no way prepared to handle, and he rather touchingly depicts all the confusion that comes with that. It's what made him, well, not a star certainly, but at least an actor you knew you would see more of.

You named your kid Pilot Inspektor, and I'M the one they ridicule?

Then came Good Will Hunting. Huge. Mega-Huge. Made Matt Damon and Ben Affleck stars. It was a labour of love that they wrote over years. And yeah, there have been rumours about this. Rumours that William Goldman or Kevin Smith or the film's director Gus Van Sant wrote it. Rumours that it was originally a spy movie about the genius Will Hunting being recruited by the CIA until someone else turned it into a drama. It's all bullshit. Goldman and Smith have denied it, and even if it was once another type of flick, what matters it what's on the screen, folks. And the movie is a drama, and it's written by Damon and Affleck.

The nastiest rumour has always been that Damon did all the writing, and Affleck basically changed paper in the printer when it ran out. And I remember that rumour starting pretty much immediately. Why did people immediately jump to that conclusion? Was it because Damon was the public face of the flick? Was it because Affleck played the dimmer best buddy to Will Hunting? Maybe. But here's the thing, Affleck is one of the best things in the movie. He's extremely funny, and very authentic. It's clear he knows guys like this. Also, one of the most original things in the film is how Affleck's Chuckie knows that Will has to outgrow their friendship to reach his potential. There's no jealousy there, there's love and a real fear that his best friend may waste a pretty amazing gift. Affleck earned my loyalty in that film, and I've stuck by him.

Suck on these, William Goldman.

He's made it hard. He was 25 years old when he really hit it big. It's really hard to avoid letting that stuff go to your head. Around this time, he began dating Gywneth Paltrow, while Damon started seeing Winona Ryder. Typical movie star stuff. He took a supporting role in Shakespeare in Love, and considering the part was well outside his wheelhouse, he did a good job. But he followed it up with Armageddon, and though I'm only slightly ashamed to admit that his final scene with Bruce Willis made me tear up, it must also be said that it was a pretty schlocky piece of dreck.

And now, he was seen as a leading man. And for the next few years, he tried to be a traditional leading man. But it seemed like he was running away from the indie-style films that made him big in the first place. Bounce, Reindeer Games, Pearl Harbor, The Sum of All Fears, Daredevil. All films trying to position him as a Movie Star like Tom Cruise. And while some were better than others, they all felt calculated, as if his manager were picking them. Sure, he made some indie films during this period, notably with Kevin Smith, and he made one good studio flick (Changing Lanes), but all he accomplish was to reinforce his image as a guy who stars in pretty mediocre flicks. And the Movie Star roles didn't seem to fit him. He seemed uncomfortable, unable to connect, but not sure what else to do.

Then he began dating Jennifer Lopez, and all hell broke loose. They were everywhere. Lopez was busily trying to set herself up as some sort of pop culture polymath a la Madonna. She was an actress, a pop star, a producer, a trend setter, a diva. Affleck and Lopez became known as Bennifer. Verrrrrry quickly, they became overexposed and surrounded by scandal and seemingly jerky behaviour. Then came Gigli, a movie so bad that Satan sent out a press release saying he had nothing to do with it, for fear being associated with it would give him a bad name.

After that, he made a couple of more movies, all of which tanked, and then he took two whole years off where he and J-Lo broke up, and he began dating Jennifer Garner. Basically, he went into hiding. At this point he was only 31 years old. It seemed as if his career as a major movie star was over, now relegated to a joke.

But after his exile he returned to the screen in Hollywoodland, a understated film that centered on the mystery that surrounds the death of George Reeves, TV's Superman. The film wasn't perfect, but it was a damn sight better than Jersey Girl, and Affleck reminded people he could act with a subtle, sad turn as Reeves. Still, reviews drew parallels between the typecast Reeves and Affleck, as if their lives were so similar not much acting was involved.

In 2007, he directed his first film, Gone Baby Gone. He adapted the novel by Dennis Lehane. The film was very well-received, garnering pretty much universal praise. Even still, there was some incredulity to the praise, as if no one ever suspected he had it in him. Here was an Academy Award winning writer and everyone still seemed to think he was basically an idiot. Maybe he hadn't quite ever delivered on the promise of Good Will Hunting, but what was the last great film Matt Damon wrote or directed?

Then out came State of Play, a neat thriller that had him more than holding his own in dramatic scenes with Russell Crowe. He followed that with another supporting role in Extract, a lackluster comedy whose stoner bartender played by Affleck was the only good thing.

Now comes The Town, which contains, as far as I'm concerned, his best performance since Chasing Amy and Good Will Hunting. It's a solid piece of work. You root for a guy you really have no business rooting for, and Affleck is extremely low-key, underplaying things and rooting his performance in a haunted quality. He co-wrote the adaptation of Chuck Hogan's novel here, but it's his direction that really confirms him as someone to watch. Like Gone Baby Gone, it's not self-conscious or too earnest, the way other actor's directorial forays can be. He clearly grasps the most important quality a director can have; a solid instinct for casting, as both films have extremely good performances throughout. He feels like a director, not like an actor moonlighting. His two films may not reinvent the wheel or announce a startling new talent, but they are both exceptionally well done pieces of entertainment.

So, let's stop being surprised. Ben Affleck is back. He's good. Get used to it.

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