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Film Review: The Town

The Town (2010; Directed by Ben Affleck)

Having seen The Town, it’s now evident to me precisely why the critical community has so eagerly encouraged Ben Affleck’s career behind the camera: it’s the best way to get him out from in front of the camera.

Am I pointing this the right way?

For all the many admirable qualities displayed in this gently sprawling caper flick (and there are many of them, for sure), its downsides very nearly outweigh them. I shall quote my significant other’s reaction, because it summarizes my own issues succintly: too many scenes of Ben Affleck having sex. Sex with women, she meant, but there’s also too much sex with Boston, and too much sex with his own ego. The Town is at its best when it’s not at the service of Affleck himself; it’s hardly a surprising move that he makes himself his own protagonist, but did he have to be its flawed saint as well? Must he have himself planning elaborate bank-robbers like a working-class Moriarty, romancing the female lead (Rebecca Hall) with an expert mix of humour and honesty, being an impeccable friend with the lads, etc., etc.? It’s a dick move in the Mel Gibson mould to build yourself up so much in your own film like that, and Affleck’s well-established thespianic limitations don’t allow him to transcend the ego-bound excesses of the choice.

It certainly doesn’t help his case that the love story at the centre of the story is preposterous and deeply creepy. Affleck and his co-writers Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard are at least aware enough of this to have Hall’s character reject Affleck’s bank robber when she realizes that it was him and his gang that traumatized her, but we’re still expected to like and root for Doug MacRay even after taking such obvious and immoral advantage of a vulnerable woman, not to mention to believe in the chance that they might end up together in his secluded Florida swamp shack (a fairly ridiculous final shot, but I digress). Even for a moviegoing public reared on flawed but lovable anti-hero rogues, this seems like a step too far.

Another step too far, though only a little, is Affleck’s aggressive Boston-love. He certainly builds up a very strong sense of place, and that’s certainly preferrable to a sort of Hollywood Everycity. But Affleck himself is done up in Beantown paraphenalia in every damned scene: a Bruins hoodie, then a Red Sox jacket, then some Celtics and Patriots stuff, to say nothing of the succession of city uniforms in the climactic sequence. We get it, dude: you’re from Boston. Write what you know and all, but move along.

What saves the movie is the fantastic cast that Affleck assembles and his skill at deploying them in a handful of slick sequences. Jeremy Renner shines darkly as the gang’s dangerous firebrand, and he, Affleck and Hall have a great scene on a sidewalk patio rich with dramatic irony and nicely set-up subtexts. The film’s instantly-iconic robbery scene is at its mid-point, featuring the gang done up as masked nuns-with guns and evading police in a white-knuckle car chase through Boston’s historic brick-and-stone old town, and it concludes with a perfect punchline. Jon Hamm uses his experience with Mad Men‘s whip-sharp scripts to spit hot shit as a dogged FBI agent on the gang’s collective Irish tails. Blake Lively slums it as a convincing dope-fiend sometimes-girlfriend to Affleck’s MacRay, and Pete Posthelwaite is an emaciated-looking Irish florist-cum-gangster.

Still, that “romance” drags things down, and though I usually avoid complaints about logical inconsistencies in Hollywood efforts, there were some genuine doozies in the closing hit on Fenway Park (referred to without irony as “Boston’s cathedral”). But again, I repeat: the best thing that Ben Affleck can do as a director is to keep himself behind the camera. There’s undeniable talent there, as long as it doesn’t continue to be undermined by his need to be a star in front of the lens.

Categories: Film, Reviews

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