There’s a new movie hitting theaters this week that sounds like it could be pretty good: Argo, the stranger-than-fiction story of a CIA agent who gets six hostages out of 1979 Iran by posing as a film producer scouting desert locations, and passing off the hostages as his crew. Even better, it stars John Goodman (never not great), Alan Arkin (criminally underrated despite a lifetime-achievement Oscar disguised as a Best Supporting trophy for Little Miss Sunshine), and Bryan Cranston (the Swiss Army knife of American actors). Best of all, it’s from the director of Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Ben Affleck.
I loved Gone Baby Gone — it was a surprisingly assured debut that got a career-best performance from its lead (Casey Affleck) and emphasized its Boston setting in part by casting local barflies in key walk-ons. The Town I liked a little less. Even though Jeremy Renner found the perfect follow-up to The Hurt Locker as a borderline psycho bank robber, the Boston setting and Boston accents felt a little reheated from Gone Baby Gone, I never bought the romantic subplot, and Affleck cast a leading man who nearly capsized the whole enterprise, and who I fear will do the same thing to Argo: Ben Affleck.
I am not a Ben Affleck hater. Though he’s one of those guys who a certain kind of person seems to just instinctively hate — actors who succeed at a young age seem to attract this sentiment (see also: Leonardo Dicaprio, Shia Laboeuf) — I feel just the opposite, even though I’ve only liked a handful of his film performances.
On talk shows and in interviews, Ben Affleck seems like a normal, funny guy whose company I would enjoy even if the word “movies” never came up. He seems to have things in perspective. (On a personal note, I also feel a kinship with him because he quit drinking even though he never bottomed out or had what most people would consider a real problem; he just decided he’d had enough, and quit.)
I can even pinpoint the moment I decided I liked him: during Gwyneth Paltrow’s monologue when she hosted Saturday Night Live in 1999, he stood up in the audience and in the course of a bit about her always speaking in an English accent, mentioned that they had dated. “We broke up like a month ago. Didn’t you read about it?” he asked. “It was in all the papers.” If I were a movie star, and I had an amicable breakup with another movie star, this is the exact kind of thing I’d like to think I would have done.
In comedies, or in comedic supporting roles, Affleck is usually great. Two roles come to mind, and probably not coincidentally, they are both from early in his career, before Hollywood pushed a little too hard to make him a leading man: O’Bannon, the paddle-happy senior football player hazing freshmen with just a little too much relish in Dazed and Confused; and Chuckie, blue-collar buddy to Matt Damon’s tortured math whiz in Good Will Hunting. In the former, he’s a straight-up heel, a buffoonish bully and the only true antagonist in a movie otherwise populated by nice kids; and in the latter, he pretty much steals the movie with the scene where he goes to one of Damon’s math-whiz job interviews in Damon’s place, wearing blue Docksiders, white socks, and an ill-fitting suit.
This scene is pretty silly, almost too silly to fit in the movie (which of course won Affleck and Damon a Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 1998), but it’s nicely balanced by the scene, later in the movie, where Affleck tells Damon he would find it insulting if Damon were to squander his potential by continuing to work with Affleck as a laborer. This latter scene sets up the movie’s climax, of course, but it is also one of the very few scenes in his career where Ben Affleck is effective as a dramatic actor.
After Good Will Hunting, Affleck got drafted to appeal to the young-girl demographic in Armageddon, possibly the worst blockbuster of all time (I particularly love when Bruce Willis kicks him off his deepwater oil rig, then immediately has to go find him to save the world — in 3 days Affleck has set up his own oil drilling business, complete with hand-painted sign.) Then he did a couple of lame romcoms (one with Gwyneth Paltrow, one with Sandra Bullock). He did another Michael Bay movie even worse than Armageddon, the execrable Pearl Harbor.
Then his strapping, square-jawed good looks were deployed to take over the role of Jack Ryan (previous occupants: Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin) in The Sum of All Fears, a Tom Clancy spy thriller. It didn’t work: the movie stunk and the franchise slumped back into its shallow grave.
From there, Affleck bounced around in a number of disappointing action thrillers (Changing Lanes, Paycheck, Reindeer Games), assassinated the huge cinematic potential of Marvel Comics’ darkest hero (Daredevil), and played the title role in the most critically reviled movie of the 00’s (Gigli).
Out of all these movies, the only ones I’ve even seen were Daredevil, because I had a chip surgically implanted in my head when I was 12 that compels me to go to any and all Marvel Comics movies; Armageddon, because a friend took me to a critic’s screening; and Pearl Harbor, because the batteries in my remote died one harrowing night a few years ago. All of those movies told me all I need to know about Ben Affleck as a dead-serious leading man: he’s just not quite believeable.
I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I can definitely point to a major factor, and that is his low-grade case of Drew Barrymore Disease. In case you don’t follow medical journals, Drew Barrymore Disease is characterized by an inability to keep the corners of one’s mouth from curling upward while speaking. (There’s no shame in it! I suffer from it myself.) He certainly doesn’t have as severe a case as Ms. Barrymore, but he definitely has a hard time keeping a straight face often enough that even when he’s doing well, I’m watching him with one thought in mind: When’s he going to smile? It’s not a matter of if, but when, and it’s very difficult to concentrate on anything else.
So when he broke his long career slump by directing Gone Baby Gone, and casting his brother instead of himself in the lead (Drew Barrymore Disease seems to be a recessive gene, because it skipped Casey), and the movie turned out to be really good, I thought: perfect. Maybe this is what Ben Affleck should be doing. He’s clearly very intelligent. He’s clearly very knowledgeable about movies. He’s clearly a very good writer — he has the Oscar to prove it. And despite his spotty record as an actor, he’s a well-regarded presence in Hollywood, he’ll attract great scripts and great talent… Ben Affleck is primed to be the next great American director!
Then came The Town, and despite its strengths — interesting premise, good supporting cast (particularly Renner), the same vivid sense of place (Boston) that Affleck imbued Gone Baby Gone with — it had a couple of glaring weaknesses, specifically the super thin gruel of the romantic plot (nobody falls in love that fast, and certainly not under those circumstances), the broad-daylight shootout that goes on a little too long without and cops or even sirens anywhere, and of course, the corners of Our Hero’s mouth creeping skyward at all the wrong times, including while threatening to kill people. It’s possible that I imagined it in this particular movie, but it doesn’t matter: I was watching for it, and that was enough to take me out of an otherwise solid B- of a heist drama.
Not long after I saw The Town, I caught the Mike Judge/Jason Bateman sleeper comedy Extract, which had Affleck in an explicitly comic supporting role as a drug-addled bartender, and guess what? He was funny and engaging! The movie got better as soon as he came into it! (On an odd side note, he kept a straight face throughout this role. How does that work? Can’t keep from smiling in dramas but perfect deadpan in comedies? A lot of comedic actors say the key to comedy is to play everything perfectly straight — maybe for Ben Affleck the key to drama is to play it as comedy?)
This is what Ben Affleck should be doing: directing big Hollywood movies, and doing little comic character roles on the side. Kind of like Jon Favreau’s career. I would trust Jon Favreau to direct a drama any time, but I don’t want to see him acting in one. Hell, even Drew Barrymore figured out this strategy: she took a small comedic supporting role in her directorial debut, Whip It, and it was by far the most I’ve ever liked her in a movie (despite persistent symptoms of her namesake condition).
So I say this with great affection: Ben? Affleck? May I call you Ben Affleck? I like you. I’m rooting for you. You seem like a genuinely good guy. But Hollywood has been trying to stuff you into the wrong box for 15 years now, and now that you’re directing your own movies, it looks like you’re going to pick up with the box-stuffing where they left off (right after Gigli). But let’s face it: you’re a funny guy. Your appearances on Saturday Night Live are easily your career highlights. The Massachussetts Gay Marriage sketch (which I would link to if I could find it online but I can’t)? Top-5 SNL moment of the 2000’s.
Now, a journalist would research this piece a little more. Go see Argo and see if Affleck’s renewed stature has put his DBD into remission. What if he’s licked it? Maybe Ben Affleck really can have it all! So I supersized my lunch break on opening day to go see the movie and guess what? Apparently the theater received a hard drive with all the trailers but not the movie, so the screening was canceled. (Thanks again, advent of digital film projection!) I got a refund and a voucher for another screening, so I will go back sometime next week and see, but I worry that it doesn’t matter. I can’t take Ben Affleck seriously as a Serious Leading Man, and there may not be much he can do about it — other than follow my advice to the letter. I can be had for only 10% of your future earnings!