Is Ben Affleck America’s hardest-luck movie star? It’s a largely oxymoronic concept, of course, and the exceptions should probably be applied to those who had stardom in their grasp and lost it in a spectacular fashion, something that seemed within the realm of possibility for Affleck circa 2005 or so, but never became a permanent condition. Yet whether through bad luck, bad decisions, or some ineffable in-between state, Affleck can’t seem to hold fast to a good thing—and his increasingly grim visage turns any perceived suffering into an extended dark joke. Did you see him on that Golden Globes montage where stars talked about their first jobs? He didn’t describe his gig taking tickets at a movie theater in great detail, but his eyes did. They said: I have seen some shit. And he was talking about a job that, within the teenage nerd community at least, must have been somewhat coveted, from the vantage point of a man who now stars in the movies that play in that proverbial theater.
Indeed, there’s no reason to feel too much pity for Ben Affleck. In 2016 alone, he played Batman in a movie that came within spitting distance of a billion-dollar worldwide gross; he played an autistic assassin in The Accountant, the rare hit live action movie not based on a comic book, novel, TV show, or toy line; and he starred in, directed, and wrote Live By Night, a passion project returning him to the work of Dennis Lehane, whose Gone Baby Gone he turned into a terrific movie (Night opens wide this weekend after an awards-qualifying run in New York and Los Angeles at the end of the year). Affleck did all of this for Warner Bros. pictures, who in the aftermath of his film Argo winning Best Picture (and making a ton of money) seem convinced that Affleck is their future Clint Eastwood: A star with commercial appeal who can also bring prestige to the studio through his own efforts as a filmmaker. Warner Bros. wants Affleck to consider them home.
As enviable as this position is—Eastwood quite evidently can make more or less whatever movie he wants at Warner, and seems to exercise that right quite frequently—you can sense the interference of studio notes even on something as simple as a friendly relationship. Whether it’s due to his own careful consideration or revised three-for-us-one-for-you math from the studio, Affleck has made in the four years since Argo just one movie as a director. Few can match Eastwood’s pace (especially filmmakers who might want to try more than two takes of any given scene), but it’s still his longest gap yet between directing gigs, during which he was convinced to take on the role of Batman for an endless series of films based on the DC Comics characters. Eastwood had his Dirty Harry series and his chimp comedies, but by the end of 2017, Affleck will already have played Batman three times, before he even gets to the solo-Batflick that he gets to (has to?) make himself.
Maybe I’m reading too heavily into his filmography, but Affleck seems comfortable finding a home at a particular studio, like the stars of yesteryear. Early on, he was a Miramax guy, with a couple of Michael Bay-directed tours at Big Disney, who owned Miramax during his Weinstein glory years. He made three thrillers at Paramount in the span of about eighteen months in the early ’00s, and his brief late ’00s work as a character actor involved a trio of films from Universal. Even after The Town brought him back to Warner, he did two in a row for Fox: one flop (Runner Runner) and one of his biggest hits (Gone Girl).
Affleck’s career has a way of evening itself out like that: One $200 million Michael Bay picture will be one of the biggest movies of the year; a second $200 million Michael Bay picture will be widely derided. One romantic lead for Kevin Smith results in acclaim for all; a second becomes an instant punchline. Sometimes the evening out happens within the same movie: Daredevil was one of his biggest hits as its reputation tanked, functioning as a simultaneous franchise-starter and franchise-killer in one.
For the most part, this is the stuff of movie star careers; few can claim the kind of track records racked up by Will Smith, Tom Cruise, or Tom Hanks in their prime. But there’s something particularly hapless about Affleck’s ups and downs—especially lately, when they seem to pain him more. This is based on nothing more than strong memories of his unsmiling promotional photos at Comic Con and the like, but they linger, maybe because it’s difficult to catch his buddy and peer Matt Damon looking so miserable for so long, and this is a guy who plays the perpetually unsmiling Jason Bourne. Moreso than when his career was actually hitting the skids, Affleck often looks like he’s trying to power through a bad career patch, one movie at a time.
That grim-looking sense of obligation has carried over into Affleck’s movies: As a particularly irate and brooding Batman; as an autistic man who doubles as a grim killing machine; and now in Live By Night, as a career criminal who wants to believe he’s just doing what he’s gotta do to survive. Live By Night is, by my sight, significantly better than its developing reputation as Affleck’s worst so far as a filmmaker. It’s not as lofty or narratively smooth as Argo, but given that Argo says next to nothing, I prefer the pulpier, handsomer Night. For that matter, it’s better than Clint Eastwood’s average quality level from the past five or six years, too. The narrative crushes together awkwardly, buckling and distending under the weight of some ponderously delivered Affleck narration, and the movie-star self-aggrandizement from The Town and Argo remains; once again, poor Ben is the put-upon center of the world, the last honorable man, etc. At his worst, he’s a self-pitying bro version of Jennifer Aniston.
He’s not always at his worst. Affleck has been especially good as a supporting player (be it in Hollywoodland or Dogma or Shakespeare in Love), a conflicted, self-deprecating romantic lead (Chasing Amy), and in movies that put his preppie side through a gauntlet of punishment (Changing Lanes and especially Gone Girl). But as decent as he can be, he hasn’t developed the depth of, say, Brad Pitt, or the movie-star doggedness of, say, Tom Cruise. Actually, he sometimes comes across like a lovably loser-y version of Cruise, working through star vehicles with more hustle than skill.
It makes sense, then, that he’d make directing a bigger part of his career. Behind the camera, Affleck’s got decent chops; this is his best-looking movie yet, and it moves along at an appealing clip, racking up character-actor supporting performances and the occasional bloody action sequence (the big shoot-out finale is a better action sequence than anything in Batman v. Superman). Affleck’s pervasive onscreen dourness is surrounded by enough color to make it seem kind of funny, albeit not always intentionally. He’s said that the movie is intended as a throwback to old-fashioned gangster pictures, and in some ways it’s spot on: a studio movie as handsome and entertaining as it is ultimately inconsequential. Affleck may not have the thoughtful, elegiac vibe of the best Eastwood movies, but he earns that shiny black-and-white variant of the WB shield all the same.
If there’s a sinking feeling to match or explain Affleck’s dark mood, maybe it’s the dawning realization that not every post-Argo Affleck movie will be an awards picture in waiting, and that in the new studio economy, he’ll have to play Batman two or three times to work up enough credit to make one that might not connect (as so many of Eastwood’s movies haven’t). Warner clearly waffled on Night, setting a January release date before doing an underpromoted awards qualifying run in late December. Now Affleck is being trotted out for Live By Night publicity rounds, which primarily seems to involve answering questions about when his Batman movie might be ready all while secure in the knowledge that his big gangster movie is not going over as well as he probably hoped. This parallels the poisonous reaction to Batman v. Superman, and that clip of Affleck descending into a pensive silence as costar Henry Cavill offers a more optimistic (Superman-like) defense against the bad reviewers brought up by their interviewer. That may have been the most evocative Affleck picture of the year.