directed by Ben Affleck; starring Ben Affleck, Jon Hamm, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively, Chris Cooper
Hollywood, that hallowed caterer to the cultural needs of the moment, is open for business. Please bring your prescriptions forward. Is your America mired in the post-Vietnam doldrums — wishing we’d kicked a little more ass, itching for a sense of closure? A tablespoon of Rambo before bed oughta do the trick. Has your America undergone a crisis of confidence, or experienced feelings of diminished potency, in the years since 9/11? Just one episode of 24, taken thirty minutes to an hour before sexual activity, and it’s the Glorious Eighties all over again.
And what to make of the insta-popularity accorded films like The Departed, Mystic River, The Boondock Saints, and now The Town? Why this sudden deluge of Shamrock Guidos acting tough on the mean streets of Baahston — celluloid sons of Whitey Bulger and Mickey Featherstone who enact provincial rites of manly violence and throw the stink-eye at anybody Not From The Neighborhood?
It’s simple: in contrast to their dusky contemporaries, today’s middle-class white males have largely declined into a tribe of self-made eunuchs — their Old Glory a white handkerchief, an earnestly warbled emo rendition of “Guilty of Being White” their national anthem. Angst-ridden shells, our modern sons of Europe; so ashamed at their inheritance of a “privileged” past that their very body language around the Swarthy Ones now spells apology: an averting of the gaze, an involuntary nod-of-the-head in deference. Hey, bro, pleads Chip’s transparent stabs at forced social interaction. I’m down. I still know all the words to “Gin and Juice.” I’m one of the good ones.
Why, yesterday’s white man was nothing less than the freedom-dispensing Christ of Western civilization: our gallant, pink-cheeked warrior-statesman who, in the steel-cage tournament for world domination, bodyslammed all five hundred pounds of Japan, made Mother Russia submit to his figure-four leglock, and put Germany down for the count with an elbow off the top turnbuckle. Today, he can’t even wear the pants in the family on a shitty sitcom. Today, his only ticket to racial redemption is falling in love with Halle Berry or taking dance lessons from Will Smith. Now, he’s little more than the vampire in the mirror of twenty-first century pop culture — with the once-resonant boom of his decades of rock-idol godhead, of his cinematic and literary innovations, reduced to a mere fart in a multicultural windstorm.
And what does he do about it, this modern white male of ours? While misogynistic black boys who preach the Gospel According to Snoop Dogg and can barely keep their own pants up are propped up by a zeitgeist that exalts willful ignorance and a twelfth-grader’s idea of masculinity — what does he do about it? Jokers unable to compete in a society that prizes more than dick size suddenly become the aces of the deck as the Great American Value System stoops to mimic that of the ghetto — and what does Whitey do about it?
I’ll tell you what he does about it: he buries his head in the sands of ironic detachment and post-feminist shoegazing — so terrified of “objectifying” the opposite sex, he can barely bring himself to approach a woman despite the half an evening she’s clearly spent adjusting her cleavage for maximum jiggle. Girls who diddled themselves to Brad Pitt’s abs in Fight Club now bestow their HPV and daddy issues on Ol’ Dirty Bastard lookalikes and tell themselves they’re “too curvy” for white guys. Meanwhile, said white guys are too busy attending hipster circle-jerks over glasses of Sam Adams, pretending to relate to drug-dealer slang in Wu-Tang lyrics, or vomiting forth passionate dork-theses on internet message boards about how Omar from The Wire yields a grander essay on “God’s Lonely Man” than even Thomas Wolfe managed.
After all, to deny such things — to be seen as having refused a seat on the Benetton bandwagon — is to be branded with a scarlet “R” and perp-walked like the Son of Sam through the Obama-stickered town square of our modern Age of Enlightenment. And that — if one desires social acceptance, if one wishes to earn one’s diversity-compliance gold star for the sake of professional viability — is The Fate Worse Than Death.
But, hey, there’s always movies like The Town, which aims to be a slice-of-Boston grit about a crew of childhood friends turned bank robbers as complications — the FBI, an unexpected romance — threaten the ties that bind. Where else can a slice of Wonder bread like Ben Affleck be a take-no-shit son-of-a-gun who, beneath all the Guinness-guzzling and everybody stay calm and no one gets hurt, is sensitive enough to be the emotional savior of a woman traumatized by his handiwork? Where else can hot blonde baby-mommas be woman enough to ride stick-up boys on couches, ghetto enough to scrap with Somalians, and damn quick to refute the assumption that Trill White Niggas all went the way of the dodo? Where else can flagging white manhood get its own psycho knight in shining Notre Dame armor — a buzz-cut Ice Cube straight outta Charlestown (Jeremy Renner, best thing in the film) who, as the pitbull to Affleck’s wounded Labrador, wears his gangsta code like a comfy sweater and is willing to die in it?
Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t have a problem with Ben Affleck. My impression of him is that of a guy with neither illusions about himself as an heir to Brando nor problems with that cozy duplex he’s been occupying on Middlebrow Ave. since Armageddon. Directing-wise, Benny Boy even started off as far from hackwork as he was from genius. His first flick, Gone Baby Gone, with its measured pacing and novelist’s sense of emphasizing just the right detail for a given scene, was a crisp snapshot of the ethnic enclave as state of mind — gripping stuff. Brother Casey (the real actor of the family, as Ben will tell you) contributed a lived-in lead performance as far from magazine-cover flashiness as the old neighborhood is from a bris in Bel Air. Ben stayed behind the camera. What it all added up to was the kind of debut that critics tend to file under “Impressive” with a note at the bottom: “Let’s see what he does next.”
Of course, as with all films about young males doing the cock-of-the-walk through a criminal underclass defined by shared ancestry, the template for The Town is Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Old crime boss (Pete Postlethwaite) who’s lorded it over their twelve-block radius since time began and pulls the strings that make our hapless protagonist dance? Check. Characters mentally imprisoned by their ethnic tribalism? Check. A way of life so etched in stone that the very idea of branching out and starting over is as strange — and as threatening — as Tommy the barkeep suddenly sprouting antlers and gibbering in Sanskrit? Absa-fuckin’-lutely. Renner’s Jem, the hair-trigger friend turned career-thief-and-loving-it, is obviously the loose-cannon De Niro role. And that leaves Affleck to give us his conflicted good-guy-at-heart Harvey Keitel.
Ben Affleck is no Harvey Keitel, though, he’s a movie star. Movie stars busy themselves thinking of response cards at preview screenings and Entertainment Weekly spreads and Tonight Show appearances — and you can read it in their calculated bravuras, in the ways that they cagily navigate the line between compelling and career-killer. A star will always leave a space for us to see the sweat on their brow — we note how diligently a Tom Cruise or a Clint Eastwood is working beneath the red-carpet smile or the craggy-faced squint that never changes, and we, the laboring masses with our ethos of praising work ethic as its own special virtue, respect the effort made to wow us. Submitting to the iron will of a director, though, means that you cede control of your image, that you’re molded and — if the film is worth a damn — you’re nudged into shadows you tend to avoid, pushed to the very limits of your talent. Give a star both hats to wear and watch him paint every stripe of drug dealer, hit man, and delusional psychotic as an energy-conserving, balanced-diet-eating, all-American Guy Next Door and understudy for Jesus.
Which is the problem: Rafe-fucking-McCawley from Pearl-fucking-Harbor is not the actor to take the bones of a hard-bitten career thief Edward Bunker might have written and put real meat on him. What Affleck the Director does is hide Affleck the Movie Star’s concerns over image behind the usual studio-movie compromises to turn their Bad White Boy into a middle-class college kid. Yes, the film lobbies us, he robs banks but he’s never actually killed or hurt anyone! in fact, he’s really a tender soul underneath it all! he works with kids and cares about the renovation of a neighborhood ice rink! oh, and also he’s still nursing wounds from a dad in prison and a mother who disappeared when he was just a wee lad! See, guys? Innat better?
Affleck proves so hellbent on making his Doug MacRay a secret Cub Scout that — fwip! — out the window go both logic (how is it that the Feds know who his guys are and yet fail to have them under surveillance?) and plausibility (the whole relationship-of-storytelling-convenience with Rebecca Hall’s assistant bank manager). His big chase through the streets following an armored-car takedown evokes the snap-crackle-’n-pop of a Seventies policier, until you realize that no Seventies film was dumb enough to have half a police force chasing a bunch of guys in nun outfits through the narrow streets of a town square while hinging their escape on the happenstance of a lone cop who — literally — chooses to look the other way.
Affleck doesn’t even sell us on how an average faackin’ guy like Doug would even be capable of such a death-courting, antisocial choice of career. Or how his best buddies all turned out to be sociopaths committed to the necessity of gunning down grandmas for a handful of hundreds while he’s off mentoring wayward youth. Perhaps I missed it, in all that crackerjack Dolby surround-sound excitement in the theater, but what do they do with their ill-gotten loot — do they have some sort of joint criminals’ account in a… bank? Do they just stuff it all inside a giant shamrock-shaped mattress that they keep in a treehouse? Wouldn’t the authorities be alerted to large sums deposited into local banking accounts just weeks — or even months — after yet another bank got knocked over by the guys that even the Feds know are —
Ah, does it really matter? Jeremy Renner’s up there on that screen and he don’t take no shit. Blake Lively’s up there and you can tell the world — including your goddamn fuckin’ African immigrants — that homegirl don’t take no shit. Even Jon Hamm — yeah, he’s the main Fed after our boy Ben — but he’s a Fed who — you guessed it.
White males exist in such clenched-sphincter paralysis now that seeing a movie like The Town is like finding a deserted outhouse in the middle of nowhere and finally letting it all out: the sulfur-bomb stench, the Fourth-of-July fireworks, the groans of relief.
You’ve been on a first date with American society for the last twenty-odd years and, all that time, you’ve had to go potty. Bad. But you’ve been holding it in because you wanted to be polite. Because changes in society and the mores of our time demand it. Certainly, you didn’t want to be crass and boorish like your oppressive ancestors — after all, that whole slavery deal was a bit of a drag. Not to mention, the stuff with the Indians. So you’ve been sitting there, knotted guts gurgling since the end of the Reagan era — unable to get so much as a toothpick up your ass, it’s been clenched so tight.
And finally — rat-a-tat-tat goes Jeremy Renner’s machine gun — you say “fuck it.” Finally — pop-pop-pop goes Benny Boy as he shows muthafuckas he’s the Wrong Mick Ta Fuck Wit — you say, “I’m tired of holding it in! I’m tired of making my stomach hurt for everybody else in America!” Finally — whack! go pipes against bone as Ben ‘n Jeremy stride boldly into the projects and show a couple of Latino punks what happens when you fuck with white yuppie broads — you stand up, fist raised to the heavens, and you shout out, “This is my shit, America. And, yes, it fucking stinks. But at least it’s outta my system.”
And then, the movie’s over.
©2011 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic
(This piece was originally posted January 23, 2011 to the now-defunct blog Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic.)