Ben Affleck’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s 2012 novel “Live by Night” is apparently getting savaged by the coastal press. “Makes ‘Black Mass’ look like ‘The Godfather’” is a quote that my colleague Jason repeated (but the source of said insult won’t be credited here). To be fair, the final 10 minutes are kind of awful (though faithful to the source material), but everything that comes before it is handled competently enough that putting it beneath “Black Mass” feels like the kind of thing an angry lover says. “You’re dumping me? Well, you’re nowhere near as good as ‘Black Mass’!” “You take that back!” “Never!” Silly, silly, silly.
As Ben Affleck directorial efforts go, though, “Live by Night” is easily his weakest. It’s stylish but a bit too familiar, lacking the intensity of Affleck’s best work. It doesn’t help matters that it’s a Prohibition-era film that takes place mostly in Florida, inviting comparisons to “The Untouchables” and “Scarface” whether Affleck wants them or not.
Joe Coughlin (Affleck), a Boston-bred, disillusioned soldier from the Great War and son of a proud Irish police captain (Brendan Gleeson), is a petty thief who runs under the protection of a local crime boss but doesn’t think of himself as a gangster. He draws the ire of his boss’ rival when he is caught having an affair with the rival’s mistress Emma (Sienna Miller), so when Joe is popped in a bank robbery, he and his father seek the protection of Italian boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) to make sure Joe isn’t killed while in jail. Upon his release, Joe agrees to work as Maso’s point man in Tampa, overseeing the rum shipments. He encounters a whole new set of problems (racism of a different stripe, mainly), but does a great job expanding the Pescatore business down south. And for his efforts, he is still treated like a second-class citizen, because he’s the son of an Irish man working for Italians.