Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, “Gone Baby Gone,” starred his baby brother and the city of Boston, one of the few settings in recent movies that can almost function as a character. I loved that movie; so much that I made it my number 1 film of 2007. So imagine my excitement when I found out that Affleck was directing another crime drama set in his hometown. And that it had Jeremy Renner and Rebecca Hall in it. I needed a cup to catch the drool.
In “The Town,” Affleck and Renner are old buddies who grew up in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston; the film opens by letting us know that there are more bank and armored car robberies within that one square mile than anywhere else in the world, a fact I find hard to swallow (wouldn’t the banks and jewelry shops just move out of the neighborhood?) and impossible to confirm (it’s not listed on the Wikipedia page for Charlestown, alongside the neighborhoods more historic tourist attractions. Can’t imagine why.) Naturally, Affleck and Renner are bank robbers; Affleck is the mastermind, and Renner the violent, unpredictable one. There are two others on their team, but we never get to know much about them. During one of their heists, Renner decides to take the bank manager hostage, then set her free unharmed a few hours later. There’s no good reason for it, and it just creates complications. When they find out she lives in Charlestown, Affleck decided to check on her, make sure she doesn’t know anything that would help the FBI find them. Naturally, she does, but Affleck really likes her, and you can see where this is going.
Well, nowhere, actually, judging from the complete lack of sparks that fly between Hall and Affleck. Her post-trauma counsellor warns her against rebound relationships, and, as she and Affleck have so little in common, one keeps waiting for her to wake up and realize just what a bad idea whole thing is. But she doesn’t, and the whole thing plays like the worst parts of “Good Will Hunting” meeting the worst parts of “Heat.”
“The Town” hits all its marks as a crime thriller; there’s the rubber masks and automatic weapons, there’s the FBI agent, played by “Mad Men’s” Jon Hamm, pulling in Affleck for no good reason except to threaten him; there’s Affleck stonewalling him and walking out with a grin on his face. It’s all here. But none of it feels inspired, memorable, or creative. Hall and Renner are talented actors and I’ve admired their work elsewhere (Affleck I’m not so sure about) but they feel like they’re punching a clock here; getting the job done, but without much energy or enthusiasm. And aside from failing to motivate his cast, Affleck the director fails to fill in the corners of the world we’re in, make it feel like a real place inhabited by real people. Blake Lively lights up the screen as Renner’s drug-dealing, part-time prostitute sister; trouble is, she’s in too few scenes, and it’s hard to comprehend what she’s doing in this movie at all. Pete Postlethwaite brings some energy as the man behind the heists who shouldn’t be crossed, but again, he’s like a bright light popping on suddenly in a dimly lit room.
If this were Affleck’s directorial debut, I would recommend he stay in front of the camera. Actually, as I don’t much like him there either, I might recommend he retire and see if he can make it as a rapper. But “Gone Baby Gone” is still my favorite movie from 2007, so here’s hoping he watches his own movies and takes some notes. Maybe he ought to bring Casey back for the next one.