Movie Review: Affleck returns to the Dennis Lehane well once-too-often with “Live by Night”

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Ben Affleck’s gangster epic “Live by Night” doesn’t fail through lack of ambition. It’s an over-reach, a sprawling tale of love, betrayal, violence and “the demon rum.”

It’s built on a book by Mr. Can’t-Miss Movie Material, Dennis Lehane, who wrote the stories that became “Gone Baby Gone,” “Mystic River,” “Shutter Island” and “The Drop.”

But as this competently-made Big Studio locomotive goes off the rails, I was reminded that however vivid some of the characters are, however poetic the narration, Lehane’s period pieces are markedly inferior to his modern day crime thrillers.

My first encounter with his fiction was “The Given Day,” a misshapen, overarching mess of an historical novel set in 1919 Boston. I read it in prep for an interview with Lehane when the book came out, and recall wondering what all the fuss over him was about. I kept thinking back to that book during the dead and dying stretches of “Live by Night,” which gets lost at about the one hour mark and drags us through another 68 minutes of KKK violence, religious power plays and lectures on white privilege and power.

But it begins with great promise and plenty of nerve. Affleck, who scripted, directed, stars and narrates the tale, is Joe Coughlin, whose World War I experience he sums up thusly.

“I left a soldier. I came back an outlaw.”

He’s a Boston gangster too good to let himself be called that. He’s forsworn violence, even as he leads his pals in sticking up mob card games and knocking over banks.

His dad (Brendan Gleeson) doesn’t approve. In a great introductory scene, we learn that his father also doesn’t approve of the mob moll (Sienna Miller) Joe sneaks around with. Because he’s a police commissioner.

Emma, given a dazzling, reckless, Irish fervor by Sienna Miller, belongs to Mr. Big, Albert White, played with a murderous menace by British character actor Robert Glenister. Joe has crossed White, and might cross him further if the blackmailing head of the Italian mob Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) has his way.

But events conspire to get Joe out of town, in Maso’s employ, to Tampa — “Ybor City, the Harlem of Tampa,” where he’ll mingle with the cigar makers and make deals with Cuban runners of “the demon rum.”

Joe has his only his sidekick (Chris Messina of “Ira & Abbey”) to rely on as he contends with White’s Tampa mob, a look-the-other-way but “incorruptible” police chief (Oscar winner Chris Cooper), the chief’s KKK hoodlum brother-in-law (Mathew Maher), the chief’s would-be actress turned evangelist daughter (Elle Fanning) and the red-hot sister of Joe’s Cuban rum connection, Graciela, played at low simmer by Zoe Saldana.

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As you glimpse that cast list and the picture traipses through Prohibition’s brutal “End Times,” where “gambling is the future” and Joe dabbles in civil rights do-gooderism thanks to Graciela and goes to war with not just the Irish mob, but the KKK, you realize “This is a mini-series, not a movie.” And despite well-handled car chases and shootouts, and a splash of droll Klan-mocking wit, it’s a mini-series that would strain to keep us interested in a story that loses its main thread early in the middle acts.

Affleck shed pounds and years for the film, but what he needed to lose was about a third of the script. The cigar factories and Florida speakeasies and juke joints are nice. But what’s fascinating are the mobsters and their threats to give Joe “the dead man’s drive” and the like.

“You’ve been hoping someone will come along and punish you for your sins,” Glenister’s sinister White hisses. “Well, HERE I am!”

Affleck is a more-than-competent director, and aside from giving himself way too many hat-wearing close-ups, he does nothing here to embarrass himself. But his performance is a mere reflecting mirror for more dazzling turns by Cooper, Glenister, Maher and especially Miller, who utterly immerses herself in a flashy, furious performance of violent bravado and vulnerability.

Fanning is, for the first time in her young career, in over her head as an Aimee Semple McPherson figure. Her sermons couldn’t fill a collection saucer.

As a Floridian, it’s fascinating to watch the movie’s alternate history of gangsters in the Sunshine State. But truth be told, “Live by Night” gets lost almost from the moment it leaves Lehane and Affleck’s home turf, Boston.

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MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity

Cast: Ben Affleck, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Remo Girone, Robert Glenister

Credits:Written and directed by Ben Affleck, based on the Dennis Lehane novel. A  Warner Brothers release.

Running time: 2:08

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