Ben Affleck made his debut as a director with 2007's Gone Baby Gone, a much-admired adaptation of a Dennis Lehane crime novel. After the success of 2012's Argo -- which won the Academy Award for best picture without so much as a nomination for Affleck, its director and co-star -- he was in a position to choose his projects, but he stuck with the one he'd been eyeing even before Argo was released: Live By Night, another Lehane book, this one about a Central Florida bootlegger's struggles with rival gangsters and the Ku Klux Klan during the late 1920s and early 1930s.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the speakeasy: Affleck became a movie star again. He played a murder suspect in Gone Girl, a critical and commercial hit, and signed a multi-picture deal as the latest Batman. Live by Night was repeatedly back-burnered.
Now that it's finally here, the finished film betrays its writer, producer, director, and star's divided attention. The picture is handsome and ambitious but maddeningly unfocused. It aspires to be a grand meditation on American corruption in the vein of Once Upon a Time in America or There Will Be Blood. But in the end, it's just a slightly better-than-mediocre genre picture, one literally dressed up in fancy clothes. (Affleck's dozens of pinstripe suits and fedoras must have taken a substantial bite out of its $65 million budget.)
Part of the problem is Affleck's screenplay, which tries to preserve more of Lehane's 400-page book (itself the middle installment in a trilogy) than the film's 128-minute run time can handle. The first act, which establishes Affleck's Joe Coughlin as World War I vet-turned-hoodlum in Prohibition-era Boston, is particularly bloated. Coughlin is in love with a mobster's mistress (Sienna Miller), and after a botched heist and a betrayal by his moll, he finds himself beaten and about to be murdered. His police-captain father (Brendan Gleeson, a pleasure to watch no matter how small the role) saves his life, and even blackmails a District Attorney to secure leniency for his son's many crimes. Coughlin serves three years in prison, then finds himself drafted into the service of Italian mob capo (Remo Girone), who sends him to Tampa to clean up his operation illegally importing Cuban rum. Want to know more about how the son of a high-ranking cop became a crook? Me, too. Guess I'll have to read Lehane's book.