Friday, March 17, 2017

Manchester by the Sea (Amazon Studios, K. Media, Pearl Street Films, Lionsgate, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was Manchester by the Sea, a 2016 Academy Award contender that helped get its writer-director, Kenneth Lonergan, out of the “movie hell” he’d fallen into through the fiasco of his previous film, Margaret (bankrolled by Fox Searchlight and shot in 2005 but not released until six years later because Lonergan and Searchlight had a struggle over the movie’s length — the studio wanted a film no longer than 2 ½ hours and Lonergan couldn’t figure out how to get down to that length from his “final” cut of three hours and 20 minutes). I referenced the New Yorker piece on Lonergan, the Margaret experience (which ended with his producer suing him for breach of contract) and his new film, and it seems as if Manchester by the Sea has a strikingly similar plot. Margaret dealt with a teenage woman (Anna Paquin) whose life is upended when she accidentally causes the death of a pedestrian; Manchester by the Sea deals with a 30-something handyman, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who’s carrying a burden of guilt because when he was living with his wife and two kids, one night he put two logs on the fireplace in the kids’ bedroom, failed to put the screen up in front of the fireplace, and as a result the burning logs rolled out, set the house on fire, and killed his two kids. His wife Randi (Michelle Williams) escaped the blaze but was unable to make it upstairs to save their children; she broke up with Lee and got involved with another man and is about to have his child. We don’t learn this until about midway through the film, through one of the confusing flashbacks Lonergan annoyingly intercuts with his main present-day action — yes, he’s one of those annoying directors who keeps us confused not so much as to where we are as when we are — and the principal issue of the film’s plot is that at the beginning Lee is racing to a hospital in Boston to see his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), who’s dying of congestive heart failure.

Lee runs into his dad at the hospital but learns that Joe died an hour before he arrived, but if you think that just because the character is dead at the outset of the film we’re not going to see him again, you’ve got another think coming. Indeed, Kyle Chandler is so visible in flashbacks he gets virtually more screen time than anyone else in the cast except Casey Affleck — certainly more than either actor playing Joe’s son Patrick (Ben O’Brien pre-pubescent, and Lucas Hedges as a teenager), whom Lee finds himself stuck with after Joe’s will is read and turns out to contain a specification that Lee is to raise the 17-year-old Patrick until he turns 21 and is emancipated under Massachusetts law. The “Manchester” the film takes place in is not the familiar one from New Hampshire but one in Massachusetts, whose city government in 1989 rather pretentiously and controversially changed its name from just “Manchester” to “Manchester-by-the-Sea” — note the hyphens. Whatever Joe did for a living (we’re not told — Kenneth Lonergan is not the sort of writer who’s going to spell everything out for us), it was sufficiently lucrative that he could afford a fishing boat, and the fate of the boat is a key issue in the plot as Patrick insists they keep it and Lee says there’s no way he can afford to maintain it on a handyman’s salary. Another issue is that Patrick predictably wants to remain in Manchester, where he’s in the middle of high school and all his friends (some of whom play with him in a pop-punk band called “Stentorian,” whose rehearsal sequences are in some ways among the most interesting parts of the film), including the two girlfriends he’s juggling, all are. Lee wants to stay in Boston even though, as Patrick notes, there’s no particular reason why Lee can’t look for a handyman job in Manchester — “Toilets get stopped up here, too,” he tells his uncle. The film is a long succession of confrontations between the two, emphasizing the burned-out nature of Lee’s character and his inability to face up to the adult responsibilities of parenthood and emotional connection — we spend much of the movie wondering why Lee can’t have a normal human relationship with anybody, male or female, sexual or not, and ultimately realize that the trauma of losing his kids and feeling responsible for it has left him emotionally devastated and drained.

There’s one partly funny, partly grim sequence in which Patrick brings Lee over to his girlfriend’s mother’s house, hoping that Lee and the girlfriend’s mom will either get it on themselves or at least carry on a flirtatious conversation that will allow Patrick to fuck his girlfriend in peace instead of worrying about her mom knocking on her bedroom door every two minutes. (She’s nosy enough about her daughter we could readily imagine her going to work for the NSA.) Earlier we’ve seen Lee at work as a handyman, including overhearing one Black woman whose toilet he’s unsticking tell a friend she’s talking to on the phone that she has a crush on him and would love to be having sex with him (he responds to this with a bland look of total burned-out disinterest) and another scene with Mrs. Olsen (Missy Yager), who takes an instant dislike to him and later complains to his boss about his attitude. (That part of this film seemed like a busman’s holiday to me!) Of course, our movie-conditioned attitude is that Lee will finally break down his defenses and accepts Patrick as both a surrogate son and a friend — that he’ll come out of his slacker deep-freeze and accept the responsibility his late brother stuck him with — but no-o-o-o-o, instead Lonergan has Lee dig up another relative with whom to place Patrick and gets the hell out of Manchester-by-the-Sea back to his shitty (literally and figuratively) job in Boston and the miserable little basement hovel in which he lived that was given to him as part of his pay. Charles said Manchester by the Sea brought back memories of his childhood, which he spent at least part of in places with actual snow (during one scene in which piles of dirty-looking snow have accumulated beside the sidewalk from which it’s been shoveled, Charles said, “That’s what snow looks like! It’s not all white and fluffy; it’s dirty and brown!”), a dubious pleasure I as a lifelong Californian have been spared.

Manchester by the Sea is the sort of frustrating movie you want to like better than you do: it’s obviously aiming for real quality, and it’s the increasingly rare sort of movie that’s actually about realistically depicted people in real-seeming situations instead of a battle between superheroes and super-villains for control of the world — but I found it sporadically moving but also rather annoying. Casey Affleck won the Academy Award for Best Actor in this film, but while he certainly makes the character believable he doesn’t make him especially likable and I, for one, just got tired of him well before the end. There were certainly better performances in movies in 2016 than this one, and one of them — ironically — was by his brother Ben in The Accountant, a far more melodramatic and action-oriented movie than Manchester by the Sea but also a stronger piece of entertainment. (Like his character in Manchester by the Sea, Casey Affleck has lived his adult life in the shadow of a more successful, more highly regarded and better-paid brother.) Casey Affleck co-starred with Matt Damon (who produced Manchester by the Sea and originally considered directing and/or starring in it) in Gus Van Sant’s mercifully forgotten Gerry, easily one of the 10 worst movies of all time, in which they both played annoying slackers who got lost on a desert hike and wandered around aimlessly for days until they presumably both died (and we didn’t care because they were such infuriating characters we really weren’t sorry to see them go), and while he’s considerably better here he’s playing the same kind of character (as Rebecca Mead put it in the New Yorker profile on Lonergan, “Lonergan’s work often has at its center a vulnerable slacker—or, as [his wife J.] Smith-Cameron puts it, ‘a character who is a very appealing, funny, interesting, tortured fuckup who means well’”) — but, pace Mrs. Lonergan, I don’t find Lee Chandler especially appealing, funny or interesting, just tortured, fucked-up and a not particularly pleasant person to spend two hours and 17 minutes with.

If anything, both the most fascinating character and the best actor in this movie is Lucas Hedges as the teenage Patrick, and one could easily imagine Lonergan recasting this story the way Stephenie Meyer redid the Twilight novels to put Patrick and his dilemmas front and center. Hedges is almost preternaturally gorgeous — a few years from now one could readily imagine him starring in a biopic of President John F. Kennedy if anyone still wants to make one about this, if anything, over-depicted figure — and he acts with such power and authority that he gives the impression, which Lonergan may or may not have intended, that he’s the mature one and Lee the child-man who needs his nephew’s guidance. Michelle Williams is O.K. in a rather underwritten role that has far less screen time than her billing (third) would indicate, though in an early flashback between her and Affleck (which takes place after their kids died in that fire but before we’ve been given that information) he tries to have sex with her and she pleads she’s “sick” and fights him off — strikingly reminiscent of her scene in Brokeback Mountain in which her husband, Heath Ledger (depicted throughout that overrated movie as Bisexual, not Gay!), wants to have sex with her and she says, “The next time I want you to make a baby you can’t afford to raise, I’ll let you know.” Manchester by the Sea is obviously a “quality” movie about real-seeming people in real-seeming relationships; it’s just not a particularly pleasant one to watch, the cinematic equivalent of castor oil (“Here, take this, it’ll be good for you after all those superhero shoot-’em-ups”), and though the people both in front of and behind the cameras have real talent, they have an all-too-common (these days) disinterest in creating characters audience members will actually like.