Well, have you been waiting for that contrarian review of Manchester by the Sea? This thing has received rapturous reviews and is solidly in the top three award-winners of the year thus far. I was sitting there the whole time like; “Am I a bad person because I’m not really involved with any of these people?” The trailer looked a bit cloying, not nauseatingly so, but you know—cloying. But I thought the final film would be different. Only, not really. It’s canned. And when you consider that this is one of the top award-winners, maybe it just points out that the crop of films this year is particularly weak.
Casey Affleck stars as a super in a Boston building who hears that this brother, up in Manchester, has died. He is suddenly given guardianship of his nephew, whom he has an extensive relationship with, and this brings up a great deal of issues from his past. Not to mention that everyone from his troubled past lives in Manchester, and he keeps running into them.
The problem is the “good” writing and, to a lesser extent, the “good” performances. We know that writer/director Kenneth Lonergan started as a playwright, and this is just good, solid, thoroughly workshopped writing that illuminates the hidden shadows of the human soul while every spark of actual, raw, messy, genuine-seeming human emotion has been cleanly eliminated. Every scene has been carefully calibrated to reveal some affecting piece of the greater emotional puzzle, but what shows most is the calibrating.
So I was never able to lose myself and get into the story, because what I was seeing is The Acclaimed Film. I remained at a distance from all of the characters, and kept a dry eye even during the “big emotional whopper” scenes, because what I was seeing are The Brilliant Performances.
Lonergan is very skilled at inventing emotionally-rich situations for his characters, and is good at thinking of stories in which an event from a character’s past influences their current circumstances and decisions [see also: Margaret], but his writing is all about how this all fits into the overall emotional arc, and what this reveals about the character’s emotional landscape, but is not about inspiration, intuition, spark or vitality. As they say in Romeo and Juliet, he “kisses by the book.” I would encourage him to start including elements in his writing that he isn’t sure where exactly they fit, what exactly they “mean,” and how it’s all going to fit together to form one precisely-foreseen portrait in which all “surprises” are expected.
Margaret was a bit of a case, in that he spent years trying to edit it, and, while we can only guess what he was undergoing personally with it, finally Martin Scorsese took control of it and edited it into a releasable form, at which point Lonergan, perhaps because he now had something to react to, released his own version. Perhaps the guy just can’t deal with ambiguity, or has extreme filmic performance anxiety. Regardless, this isn’t a waste of time [although in retrospect I wish I’d seen something else], it’s just, to my mind, what currently passes for a “great film” but isn’t actually a great film.