Manchester by the Sea

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.

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14 thoughts on “Manchester by the Sea

  1. I was occasionally affected by this film, but I mostly felt bewildered, didn’t really know what to say about it except that the performances were excellent. The big wrenching scene between Michelle Williams and Affleck left me largely unmoved because (from what I could see) her face was dry as a bone even as she went through the superbly-acted motions of being overwhelmed by sorrow and weeping. A tear did appear on her cheek after a cut, probably placed there by the makeup person. I was just aware that boy, was she ever doing a good job of acting, but her dry eyes barred me from its reality. I was also puzzled by all that stuff about the son maneuvering to be with his girlfriend(s). Are those just more examples of repressed grief? I guess my emotions were repressed too.

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    • Glad it wasn’t only me. I also noticed her dry eyes in that scene. I felt that way about Affleck, too… he’s doing really fine acting, and you can see all the acting that’s going on.

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  2. Reminds me of what Pauline Kael said of Richard Chamberlain’s performance in “The Last Wave”…something along the lines of his toes acting inside his shoes.

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  3. Not just Barry and Scott! I’m a huge fan of Margaret and You Can Count on Me and this left me thoroughly whelmed … maybe because the defining tragedy is presented to the viewer like a mystery to be revealed, leaving us dark as to the compass of the characters (who all know) while making the event and its revelation feel more plotty than authentic. And maybe the ending didn’t give me enough to make wading in glumness especially powerful. Glad I saw, glad it kicked me to read a Lonergan play, won’t look back on this one that much.

    In fairness to Lonergan, wasn’t a lot of the Margaret delay caused by studio demanding a certain run time? Still a bit precious if Lonergan had that directive before filming, but if true it’s less like he was dithery.

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    • I have no idea what happened with Margaret [which I liked very much], but the idea of being overwhelmed by all the choices one could make in a film’s direction resonates with me. It illustrates how we choose to believe one narrative without any of us actually knowing… but it’s a good narrative.

      I am really into the project of examining how one big event can have ripples throughout a person’s life… in this case, though, we have the sentimentality of raising a child and being a child’s guardian added on, and that may move this into the land of the too mawkish for some.

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  4. Pingback: 2016 in Review – CdM II: The Quickening

  5. Same here. I was held (at first) by the comedy which always pops up in real life grief situations, but it seemed like we were waiting for something that never arrived–Casey Affleck was giving a textbook “great performance” that never suggested a real person. And, for me, we didn’t get enough (even in flashbacks) of the Kyle Chandler character–WHY did he leave custody of his only child to his clearly disturbed, self-destructive brother? What was he hoping for? In the end, all the movie seemed to say was that some traumas can’t be overcome. It could have done that in a lot less time.

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    • Not only WHY leave the kid to the one person least equipped to care for him, but WHY not TELL Casey in advance? That was also the big elephant in the room, why this huge surprise. It starts to hint that Kyle “Handsome” Chandler did it on purpose to force Casey to grow and perhaps show that he believed in him, but that would be a whole, very big theme that the film as it is doesn’t go into.

      By the way, did anyone have any thoughts on the gay-seeming executor giving Casey condescending attitude for having problems with completely upending his life and taking unwanted responsibility for a child? I don’t have any problem with it–it seems like just a possible quirky real-life touch–but it’s also odd enough to stand out. Did anyone else notice / have thoughts?

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      • Kyle Chandler’s “Surprise! You inherit my son!” trick actually was a dividing point between me and my movie buddy (who liked this less than me.) Buddy thought Affleck had an obligation to carry out the last wish, while I thought it was a dick move, essentially hijacking Affleck’s life (not to mention leaving no option for the son if his uncle just might not be up to it.)

        But I did think that Chandler was trying to strongarm his brother into re-engaging with life, as well as perhaps provide his son with a semi-father figure – after all, pre-catastrophe, they really bonded fishing on that boat that one time!

        If the executor hit me as gay during the viewing, it didn’t stick with me, so can’t say that I attached a lot of significance to it.

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    • We like sneaking into your office when no one is looking and taking all of the healthy, delciious snacks and leaving behind almost identical looking but nasty snacks.

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  6. This is the kind of “powerful” movie that no one actually wants to see, unless they are doing research for their Oscar pools. And the acting gets praised because there isn’t a real story, only a succession of “moments”. “You Can Count on Me” covered similar ground (except it was about a lifelong fuckup, not one made that way by trauma) but it was much funnier, many-sided, and unpredictable.

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  7. Great review of yours, thanks. I am also ambivalent about this film. Sure the acting by Affleck is award-worthy and the filming is superb. But the ‘fight your inner demons’ is cliched and his redemption through family re-connection was predictable from the reading of the will onwards. The flashbacking was frenetic and the finale trite. A bit over-hyped I think.

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  8. Thank you. I trolled through the 98% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes to find someone who could explain why I hated this movie. It felt too constructed and too forced in its attempts to be “realistic” Sorry but I don’t think situations this big could be so devoid of I don’t know true personality. It all seemed contrived by someone who imagined how people might react in real life.

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  9. Oh and Michelle Williams “big scene” reminded me of Beatrice Straight’s big scene in “Network” Five minutes that got her an Oscar. I hope it doesn’t happen again.

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