Ben Affleck wears too many hats in Live by Night, wrestling to adapt Dennis Lehane's novel and directing in spasms of style. Most ill-fitting are the fedoras and Panamas worn by Affleck the actor, playing a Prohibition-era Florida bootlegger as dashing as dishwater.
Live by Night is the movie set in Ybor City yet filmed in Georgia with production incentives Florida doesn't offer. As such, there's provincial curiosity about Affleck's movie that won't be shared by 49 3/4 other states. Tropical settings and namechecked Tampa streets are practically all that separates Live by Night from countless mob dramas with Tommy guns blazing and pretty molls all in a row.
Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, a World War I veteran resorting to small time heists in Boston. His police chief father (an excellent Brendan Gleeson) looks the other way until he can't, after an Irish mob boss (Robert Glenister) is targeted and Joe steals his dame (Sienna Miller). Live by Night gets a jaunty if familiar start, with moody shootouts and tough talk in back rooms.
Crossing one mobster makes Joe a benefit to another, an Italian bootlegger (Remo Girone) hiring him to run operations in Ybor City. Joe scrams, leaving behind everything except a torch he'll carry and we'll forget until Affleck the scripter clumsily reminds us, too late to register.
Around the 30 minute mark, Live by Night starts making us somewhat feel at home, a century ago. A train carrying Joe and his crony Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina) chugs into a town marked Ybor City, dusty yet thriving with Cuban immigrant energy. Production designer Jess Gonchor turned a patch of Brunswick, Ga. into an impressive facsimile, with Robert Richardson's camera caressing the cigar factories, nightclubs and juke joints.
Looks aren't everything in movies, but sometimes that's all Live by Night has going for it. Lehane's novel is a trove of west Florida history bullet points, spun into sprawling fiction Affleck never manages to control. Conflict shifts with the locale; instead of competing mobs Joe faces opposition from Tampa police chief Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper, great as usual), who knows there will be crime but doesn't want bloodshed. The chief's daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) is an aspiring Hollywood starlet and third act drag.
Live by Night shuffles from one subplot to the next, most of them interesting but unfulfilled as Affleck tries to cover everything in two hours. Joe's feud with a Ku Klux Klan member (Matthew Maher) about hiring Afro-Cuban workers would be enough for a thrilling mob tale with a twist. Romance with a local (Zoe Saldana) adds spice if not momentum. There's a Boston mob invasion on the way but that's the least of Joe's worries, or the film's.
Loretta returns from Hollywood under sordid circumstances and becomes an evangelist, railing against demon rum and gambling. Thing is, Joe is building a swanky casino in nearby Longboat Key (movie geography, you know). Live by Night becomes a battle of politely expressed wills, including a despicable reveal that might be crushing if Affleck conveyed the necessary internal conflict for his character.
Affleck certainly looks the part, tearing through Jacqueline West's snappy retro designs rack like a runway stud. Live by Night could inspire a new Oscar category for hats alone. But after haberdasher fascination wanes, you notice the face underneath Affleck's hats seldom offers much beyond a square jaw and determined gaze.
Live by Night is ambitious to a fault, with so much material and technical pizzazz that a cable miniseries format might have been a better way to go. That sense of over-reaching stretches to Affleck, whose slack acting is likely due to keeping a sure hand on everything else getting done. Perhaps if he hadn't needed to build an Ybor City...
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.