Ben Affleck: Will 'The Town' finally earn him some respect?
One of the best books about baseball -- and baseball writers -- is Jerome Holtzman's "No Cheering in the Press Box," which takes its title from the unspoken law that sportswriters are not ever supposed to show any rooting interest in the team they are covering. Happily there is no such commandment for entertainment columnists, so I can happily root to my heart's content for Ben Affleck, who has something of a career make-it-or-break-it movie coming out this weekend called "The Town." Affleck not only stars in the heist picture, he directed it and co-wrote it. So if it succeeds, he will get the credit. If it fails, he will get the blame. (As of now, the box office swamis are saying the film is running neck-and-neck with the teen comedy "Easy A" for the opening weekend No. 1 slot.)
It's no secret that Affleck needs a hit, since his career as an actor has been in something of a tailspin ever since he became the butt of a million Bennifer gags during his disastrous engagement to Jennifer Lopez. But I hope that "The Town" is a success so that Affleck can make an even more important career move--become a full-time film director. As he proved in "Gone Baby Gone," his 2007 directorial debut," Affleck is a natural born filmmaker. And "The Town" does nothing to disprove that notion, offering us a suspenseful portrait of a bunch of working-class crooks trapped in the world of bank robbing and shootouts, with only the strangest flicker of a budding romance offering one of them a way out of the thug life.
The movie is set in Boston, Affleck's hometown, and he gives us a pungent whiff of the city's criminal underside. Affleck has never been an especially arresting actor, but now that he's behind the camera, he seems to have a knack not only for shrewd casting, but for getting great performances out of the likes of Jeremy Renner, who is about to become this century's Steve McQueen, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, Chris Cooper and the marvelously insidious Pete Postlethwaite.
Affleck will never become a great actor, but with two well-crafted movies under his belt, it seems clear that he has every opportunity to become a gifted and durable director. It's no secret that actors make phenomenal filmmakers, since the list of formidable directors who began as actors is a long one, stretching from Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford through Ron Howard and Rob Reiner to George Clooney, Mel Gibson and Ben Stiller.
Affleck's biggest problem is his image. He comes off, as he did the other night on "The Daily Show," as an affable lunkhead, always eager to please -- not an image that lends itself to being written about as an accomplished filmmaker. Of course, if you think about it, a lot of actor-directors were initially dismissed as lightweights. No one (except for a few crazed auteurists) took Eastwood seriously for years. Ditto for Ron Howard and Rob Reiner, who came up through the comedy ranks. And of course it's now hard to find anyone who'd admit that Gibson was actually a surprisingly adept filmmaker.
Affleck may have an easier path with the critics this time around, who have so far been showering "The Town" with praise. Newsweek's Caryn James, for example, found herself talking about Affleck's "signature style" and volunteering comparisons to Eastwood. There are still detractors, like the New York Post's Kyle Smith, who recently put up a post titled "Top Ten Things Wrong With 'The Town.' " But he's in the distinct minority, with the film, as of this writing, earning an impressive 82 fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
What Affleck needs now as a director is a hit. "Gone Baby Gone" barely cracked $20 million at the box office, though you could argue that was a damn fine showing for a dark (make that very dark) mystery film about a missing child. But "The Town," which cost roughly $37 million to make, will have to do better. "The Town" is being released by Warners, where the studio's picture group president Jeff Robinov has a reputation for taking risks on interesting filmmakers. But studio bosses won't take risks on filmmakers who don't deliver the goods. If "The Town" doesn't have a solid showing at the box office, it will be even harder for Affleck to get his next picture made.
He could always go back to acting full time -- he already has a gig starring in Terence Malick's new film. But I want to see Affleck succeed as a director, since he clearly cares about good storytelling, something of a lost art in today's Hollywood. There's a reason why critics are comparing him to a younger Eastwood. Affleck has an easy, unobtrusive touch as a filmmaker, a fondness for the crime genre and a knack for making his actors look like they're all on top of their game. Judging from his latest film, "Hereafter," Eastwood hasn't lost his touch. But at 80, he's nearing the end of his run, so it's not too unseemly to be looking around for filmmakers who, as James put it in her review, "live at the crossroads between entertainment and art."
If anyone can walk in Eastwood's footsteps, it's Affleck. Making movies that offer both entertainment and art is a tall order. But hey, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.
Photo: Ben Affleck, left, with Jon Hamm at the premiere of "The Town" at Boston's Fenway Park.
Credit: Brian Snyder / Reuters