On The Town

Ben Affleck’s second directorial effort, “The Town,” has received mostly positive reviews, and critics are placing it in a Boston crime subgenre, alongside “The Departed,” “Gone Baby Gone,” and “Mystic River.”

Which is a fair assessment, but it misses the point.

Let’s put this whole facking town in our rearviews, together, after the jump.

Spoilers ahead.

Yes, of course “The Town” is a Boston crime drama, when taken at face value. But what is the movie, really? What lies beneath the bank robberies and mobbed-up florists and car chases?

“The Town” is “Good Will Hunting Part II” dressed up in heist movie clothing.

I say this as a viewer who likes both “Good Will Hunting” and “The Town” — quite a bit, actually — but “The Town” shows that Ben Affleck has never really been able to leave Mr. Hunting behind. The new film is not so much a sequel as it a remake, and a chance for Affleck to cast himself in the Matt Damon role, with Jeremy Renner stepping up to take Affleck’s part from the original.

Affleck plays Doug MacRay, a smart kid with a dark past from a blue-collar neighborhood in Boston, whose life hasn’t lived up to his own expectations, let alone anyone else’s. He takes comfort from his rough-and-tumble buddies while trying to repress his regrets and broken dreams. And he falls for an uptown girl who might just be his ticket out. Sound familiar?

Renner plays his best friend, but instead of trying to propel Affleck out of town and into a better life (like Affleck did for Damon in GWH), he’s a vaccuum, forever sucking Affleck deeper into a life he desperately wants to leave.

Instead of a talent for complex mathematics, MacRay is adept at robbing banks. Of course, he’s a criminal with a heart of gold — he wants to avoid hurting people unnecessarily, wants to get out while the getting’s good, etc. In fact, all the crime genre elements of the film are so rote, so lazy, that it’s abundantly clear that aspect of the film was an afterthought. (Affleck co-wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Chuck Hogan.)

Every element of the bankrobbing story has been taken verbatim from the crime-film canon. Affleck doesn’t want to turn into his jailbird father. The aforementioned mobbed-up florist has a past with Affleck’s daddy and sees some of the daddy’s traits in Affleck. A character intentionally waves an unloaded gun around in front of some cops because he’d rather die than go back to prison. Affleck is ready to retire from bankrobbing, but gets pulled back in for one last big score. There’s a scene where a character’s love interest discreetly warns him that a planned meet-up is actually a police-induced trap taken right out of “Heat.” There’s even a guys-can’t-hear-anything-so-we-can’t-hear-anything beat cribbed directly from “Copland.”

There’s nothing here we haven’t seen before. Almost all of the crime elements are well executed by Affleck and his cast, and the movie does work as a heist flick, but it’s clear that’s not where the writer/director spent the most time and effort.

No, Affleck’s heart was in creating the character beats and salt-of-the-Earth Boston atmosphere that infused “Good Will Hunting.” What Will Hunting and Doug MacRay share, beyond their similar backgrounds and personalities, is a sense that these are “special” men. They are better than their common, minimum-wage, Oxycontin-riddled surroundings. There is some quality, invisible but easily noticed, that elevates them above their peers. They’re too good for their friends, their families and their communities.

Affleck and his co-writers have given us a modern, sanitized version of the Magical Negro — the Magical Townie. These characters have been touched by some higher power. They walk among us, but are not of us. Their specific talents are beside the point. It doesn’t matter that they’re great at math, hockey, fighting, shooting, whatever — they would be good at anything they try. And they’re better spiritually than everyone else; they’re driven by an innate knowledge of what the right thing to do is in any given situation, and a drive to do it. All both Hunting and MacRay need is an inciting incident and a lady love to remind them that they’re better than everyone and everything in their immediate surroundings. Charlestown is MacRay’s home, but it’s also his shackles.

It’s a weird message for a pair of movies that so blatantly fetishize blue-collar Boston. The films want to have their Boston cream pie and eat it too — they celebrate the close ties these communities produce, and all the delightful, culturally specific quirks of these poor, dumb people, yet the moral is that anyone of value needs to get as far the fuck away as possible.

The dialogue of “The Town” seems tailor-made to allow Affleck to show off his Boston accent as much as possible. Every other line has him talking about how “smaht” somebody us or telling somebody to get in the “cah.” It’s clear Affleck loves this stuff. The camera lingers on the details of daily life in the neighborhood — the sleazy bars, unkempt backyards, the horrid wrinkles in the residents’ faces. “Good Will Hunting” and “The Town” (and “Gone Baby Gone” for that matter) are films made by someone deeply in love with a specific place. Affleck has a blue-collar Boston fetish the same way that Craig Finn has a Twin Cities fetish, or Richard Russo has a small-town New England fetish. The setting details end up serving as the most important character in the film.

It’s easy to see why repeating the good-kid-gets-out-of-Beantown fable from GWH is appealing to Affleck — a Boston kid who now lives a fairy tale life in Los Angeles with Jennifer Garner.

As I said, I liked “The Town” an awful lot. But it’s pretending to be something it’s not. Of course, if Ben Affleck were here right now, I’d just have one thing to say to him: “It’s not your fault.”

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1 Comment

Filed under Film Has AIDS, The Dilemma

One response to “On The Town

  1. The Town showed Ben Affleck’s talent as a director. He won an Oscar for his writing, and is a box office star already, but this cemented his reputation as a great director.

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