Arts and Culture

The Affleck Effect

He wrote, directs and stars in 'The Town.' Are we to think he's the next Clint Eastwood?

By Steve Burgess 17 Sep 2010 |

Steve Burgess writes about film, television and other cultural phenomenon every other Friday.

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Ben Affleck directing 'The Town' in Cambridge, Mass.

Hollywood rehab is not just for the likes of Lindsay Lohan. It's for people like Ben Affleck too. The star of Pearl Harbor, Gigli, and Daredevil has been in career rehab for awhile now, trying to shake the stink left by mannequin performances in movies you only wish you could forget. Affleck and buddy Matt Damon were instant sensations when 1997's overpraised Good Will Hunting won them screenwriting Oscars. It looked like too much, too soon. But despite a hiccup or two, Damon has gone on to a solid and increasingly interesting career, helping reinvent the spy thriller in the Jason Bourne trilogy and recently turning in a great lead performance in Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! In movies like Invictus and the Ocean's 11 series, Damon has been hanging with the cool dudes like George Clooney and Morgan Freeman. Affleck? His next big screen partner was Jennifer Lopez.

He's been trying to make amends. Playing doomed Superman George Reeves in Hollywoodland and Representative Stephen Collins in State of Play helped Affleck in his personal version of Take Me Seriously Quest. Now comes The Town, an Affleck project top to bottom -- screenplay, direction, lead performance. This bank robbery flick may be sufficiently entertaining to make Affleck a little more bankable. But if he's aiming to be the next rehabilitated, double-threat Clint Eastwood, he'll have to do a lot better than this.

The Town is set in Boston's Charlestown district, claimed here to be the bank robbery capital of America. Affleck plays Doug MacRay. He's a near-sighted old security guard. Kidding! MacRay is from a long line of bank robbers like his convict daddy (Chris Cooper). MacRay wears a Bruins shirt and once dreamed of a pro hockey career, but drugs put a stop to that and he's back in the family line. His bank heist crew includes hot-headed ex-con James Coughlin (The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner), whose sister Krista (Blake Lively) is our hero's baby mama. Life is good. But then MacRay meets a new girl.

Her name is Claire (Rebecca Hall). It's funny how they meet -- see, he's this guy in a death's head mask robbing a bank, and she's the employee taken hostage. Not everyone goes for this newfangled Internet dating, you know. Next time they meet he's remembered to take his mask off and love blossoms, thanks to her blissful ignorance of just how she first caught his eye.

Mad man on his tail

Bad news -- the crew is being pursued by Don Draper, or at least his doppelganger. Jon Hamm plays FBI agent Adam Frawley. Gonna get those boys, he is. Meanwhile, Coughlin the hot-head wonders why his best friend is sleeping with a woman who could send them all to prison if she were to suddenly wise up about just who took her hostage. It's a good question, even from a hot-head. Now let's have a car chase. We're moving right along here.

It's nothing you haven't seen many times before, except perhaps the particular Romeo and Juliet variation of bank robber and hostage. That the love story strains credulity doesn't help; nor does a coda that may leave a sickly sweet taste on some palates. The Town isn't going to make Affleck into Clooney, or even his friend Damon. In The Informant! Damon proved he could nail a character role. Affleck doesn't have anything like that kind of range, and moreover he just isn't that interesting to watch. Here he's out-acted by Renner, and even Hamm, who doesn't have a whole lot to do, is arguably more likeable onscreen.

The next Clint?

Actors like Eastwood have proved that being one-dimensional is no barrier to a great career. But for that you need the kind of screen presence Affleck will never possess.

As for Affleck's directing career, Eastwood is probably a model there as well. While I have been no fan of recent Eastwood blockbusters like The Changeling or Million Dollar Baby, Unforgiven showed what he could do with a good script. And that raises another issue. Eastwood gets scripts from good writers; Damon allows himself to be directed by talents like Soderbergh and Paul Greengrass. The Town stars Ben Affleck, directed by Affleck, reading Affleck-penned lines.

The results are not terrible, by any means. But working for himself, Affleck can't really rise above the level of competence. He should hire good help. In the meantime, it will take more than The Town to make up for Pearl Harbor.  [Tyee]

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