Critical Mass: 'The Town'
After a string of starring roles in less-than-stellar movies, Ben Affleck appears on track to recapturing his Oscar-winning glory days. But unlike the success of his former writing partner, Matt Damon, Affleck's comeback isn't so much on camera as it is behind the scenes. His 2007 feature directing debut, "Gone Baby Gone," earned a handful of awards and nominations, including an Oscar nomination for supporting actress Amy Ryan. But Affleck's directing follow-up, "The Town," is earning Affleck even more praise and some of the best reviews of his career.
The Times' Kenneth Turan had nothing but praise for Affleck's bank-robber drama, and singled out the actor's skill behind the camera, both in co-writing and directing, as an improvement over his impressive debut. He writes, "Affleck also seems more confident and at ease in the director's chair this time around and less like the actor with something to prove." He goes on to praise the film's impressive cast, including Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm and Rebecca Hall.
The New York Times' A.O. Scott still thinks "Gone Baby Gone" is the superior film, but allows that "The Town" is "essential viewing" for Boston aficionados. And though he has minor problems with some of the characters, like Turan he sees the great strength of the film as its cast and how Affleck handles them. "As it is, the performances in 'The Town' are strong enough to make it watchable, and the sense of place — of topography and architecture, if not of actual social life — is vivid and enjoyable."
One of the meta story lines played out in reviews of "The Town" is the pleasure many have in seeing an actor making a comeback after being virtually written off in his post-"Bennifer" flame-out. The Dallas Morning News' Chris Vognar gives the new film four and a half stars and concludes by saying it "forges ahead with one of the best Hollywood second-act stories in recent memory." For you screenwriting wonks going in expecting some M. Night Shyamalan twists, it should be pointed out that the second act he's referring to isn't in the film -- it's Affleck's career.
But who cares what critics from far-flung states have to say about Affleck's hometown crime thriller? It's the boys back in Beantown who matter the most, and Ty Burr writing in the Boston Globe says generally nice things about "The Town," even if he wants everyone to be clear on one thing: Affleck's so-called authentic vision of Boston isn't the real thing. "I don’t care what anyone outside the greater metropolitan area says: 'The Town' takes place in Movie Boston rather than the real thing," he says.
The writer in the local alt-weekly the Boston Phoenix is more positive. Peter Keough's review has high praise for Affleck's ability to sustain a consistent mood and his "knack for flat-out action." In fact, the only thing he takes minor issue with is Affleck's shaky accent. Maybe he's been out in Hollywood too long?
But lest you think the critics are universally singing Affleck's praises, think again. Slate's Dana Stevens has it out for Mr. Affleck in a really bad way. As cool as she is to Affleck's talents behind the camera, it appears that his decision to play the film's criminal mastermind is what does it in. And yes, she wears her bias on her sleeve. "But Affleck — look, I understand that there are people who find him a congenial screen presence, though I don't number among them. Even so, let's not kid ourselves about his acting," she writes.
Stevens aside, "The Town" is shaping up to be a triumph for the guy who once held the distinction of appearing in one of the most insipid "romantic" scenes in recent cinema history. Yes, the animal crackers scene.
--Patrick Kevin Day
Photo: Ben Affleck, right, and Jeremy Renner in "The Town." Credit: Warner Bros.