Critics have recently slobbered in their acclaim for director Kenneth Lonergan’s new film, “Manchester by the Sea.” With Casey Affleck winning a Golden Globe for his performance, the film was named the best movie of 2016 by no less than 10 critics and has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture. I was astounded, then, to find that so many people with so much seemingly serviceable gray matter betwixt their ears could stomach, little less praise to the point of hysteria, such a profoundly bland motion picture populated by muddled and insipid characters.
The film presents itself as a study of grief on multiple levels. This exploration occurs most explicitly when Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck, is forced to take care of his nephew, Patrick, after the boy’s father dies of congestive heart failure. The plot then seesaws back and forth as Lee attempts to (brace for nauseating cliches) overcome his past, become a better man, learn to love again and blah blah blah.
I realized I detested the movie about halfway through its run. Lee drives Patrick to his girlfriend’s house, and, in the car, he asks the ginger twerp if this is the same girl he had met a few days earlier. Patrick shakes his head and says that this is his other girlfriend and that the two girls do not know about each other, so if anyone asks, Casey Affleck, please just mumble incoherently like you do in all the rest of your films. Such a revelation, chuckled at by the popcorn-munching ignoramuses surrounding me in the theater, wholly undermined Patrick’s character.
Patrick, in all other instances, seems like a good person. He is outgoing, confident, funny, both an athlete and a musician. In short, he is likeable. But how can this boy, wholesome and well-mannered in every other respect, so discard basic morality and decide to sleep with two women at the same time? It belies a not unserious character flaw, and the filmmakers’ and audience’s nonchalant acceptance of this hamartia is perhaps indicative of the sad, cynical and pussy-grabbing excesses of our restless society. His adultery is at best manipulative, at worst pathological and inherently reprehensible. Patrick is revealed to be as sex obsessed as Megyn Kelly, craving to make love with his second girlfriend (after tastelessly diddling the other just the night after his father’s death) not because he appreciates their relationship or, gasp, loves her, but instead because it seems like something a teenage boy should do. Sex, after all, is nothing special, just like death, so it is doubly normal for the two to occur in tandem.
But you may whine, “Mr. Baize [this is, after all, how you are to address me], Patrick is a complex character! So complex, in fact, that he can be both an adulterer and a good person at the same time!” Well, I thumb my nose at you and your inane point. This casual sexuality has become the norm as of late, and I suppose it is a reaction against suffocating Victorian sexual norms. But a character is not deep because he can bone women profusely and also weep in mourning over his deceased father. A character is deep because he engages in either complex thoughts or complex actions or preferably, both. Patrick does neither. His sexual adventures are not well considered but instead thrown into the movie as a sort of “boys will be boys” comic relief. Added as a footnote, this failure of characterization proves to be the loose thread which unravels Patrick — his flippant treatment of the female characters he engages with jangles in discordance with the rest of his otherwise becoming and sympathetic personality.
Also, he littered at one point in the film.
Despite my problems with Patrick, I quite enjoyed Casey Affleck’s Lee and consider him a masterful character study. A man who resorts to violence as a means of escaping his lack of agency and voice, he must grapple with the tragic intersection of the past and the present to determine his future. Nonetheless, Casey Affleck’s performance was entirely overrated (as a thespian, he is even more overrated than Meryl Streep) and not deserving of any award, especially since he has recently taken the mantle of world’s most unkempt beard from the late Fidel Castro. Affleck has cornered the market on characters who either mumble all their lines or remain silent while avoiding eye contact. These characters are, of course, meant to be introspective, or aloof, or whatever other euphemism you want to use to justify paying Casey Affleck millions of dollars to whisper a paragraph of dialogue over 120 minutes. I think I could have done a tolerable job playing Lee Chandler, as I too am an emotionally distant misanthrope who was once in love with Michelle Williams.
My father, an articulate and insightful critic in his own right, issued this succinct pronouncement regarding “Manchester”: “I’m tired of these motherfuckers spending millions of dollars to make shithole movies.” Indeed, I cannot imagine that in a hundred years, critics will look back on this tedious little film and agree it was our best effort. However, in a year so wracked with other, larger distresses, I suppose “Manchester by the Sea” was not 2016’s most terrific failure, but rather its most monotonous.
Contact Joshua Baize at firstname.lastname@example.org .