Monday, September 20, 2010

The Town

There’s something anachronistic about Ben Affleck. As an actor he exudes old-fashioned reserve, maneuvering his big body so carefully he seems almost arthritic. (No wonder he was cast as George Reeves, the original TV Superman, in Hollywoodland.) And as a writer/director, he has more in common with Clint Eastwood than with anyone in his own generation, making the kind of irony-free, moralistic melodramas that dominated Hollywood in the ‘50s. And so, while Casey Affleck is testing our limits this year, pushing audiences outside their comfort zones both as an actor (The Killer Inside Me) and a director (I’m Still Here), his big brother is coloring well within the lines.

Like the other two movies Ben Affleck has cowritten and/or directed, The Town is set in Boston. Also like the others, it explores the gulf between the city’s abundant yuppies and its vast and varied working class – or tries to. Our Town is the second movie Affleck has directed, and while it’s not quite as sentimental as Good Will Hunting (which he cowrote but didn’t direct), it’s not nearly as gritty as his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. Boston, which is supposed to be one of The Town’s main characters, just feels like a series of carefully dressed sets here, not like the hot-blooded, treacherous, yet compelling organism that was Gone Baby Gone’s Dorchester.

This might not have been quite such a Nilla wafer of a movie if Affleck hadn’t played Doug MacRay, the leader of a four-man team of bank robbers in the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown. Affleck is a likeable actor – I always find myself rooting for him, even when he’s in something preposterous (as he usually is.) But he doesn’t generate enough heat to make a convincing criminal mastermind – not even one with a heart of gold and a sad back story.

We learn some of that story when Doug visits his dad (Chris Cooper), who’s serving life for armed robbery. The old man is a master thief, all right: He steals the scene right out from under his son. But mostly, we find out about Doug’s background when he starts confiding in Claire (a sadly underused Rebecca Hall), the manager of a bank he and his boys just robbed. Like so many couples, Doug and Claire met on the job. Claire just doesn’t happen to know it, since she was blindfolded at the time. You see, Doug’s best friend and partner in crime, Jim (Jeremy Renner, as focused as a rattlesnake), took her hostage after robbing her bank.

I wondered why he took a hostage, other than to provide a way for the two to meet cute, since the gang wasn’t being followed and they never took one after any of their other robberies, but little things like that would have rolled off my back if the big stuff had worked. What really bothered me was being unable to buy the relationship between Doug and Claire. Would he really have risked dating her, especially after he learned that she’d seen one of Jim’s tattoos and could therefore presumably lead the FBI to him? And would she really have forgiven Doug so quickly and completely after learning that he was one of her kidnappers?

The friendship between Doug and Jim felt pretty unlikely, too. I could believe that the two had been close when they were kids, but it was hard to see what they had in common now, since Doug is a marshmallow and Jim is a sociopath who thinks nothing of shooting someone or beating him senseless.

To deflect attention from this undercooked stew, Affleck throws in a heist every hour or so. The costumes are inventive: the robbers wear skull masks and capes the first time; dress as nuns the second, and switch from police uniforms to EMT outfits the third time around. The robberies are nicely shot, too (aside from a few of those annoying jerky close-ups), so they’re energetic and reasonably fun to watch.

The Town heightens the sympathy all heist movies create in us for the thieves, making the FBI agent (a rigid John Hamm) stalking the group so coldhearted that we love it when Doug outsmarts him. Affleck is at his best here, combining his love of blue-collar Boston with our knee-jerk support for the underdog. The ruts are worn awfully deep in the road he's traveling here, but it still takes you where he wants to go.

Written for TimeOFF

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