****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****
Estimated Reading Time : 5 minutes 14 seconds
My Rating : 3 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation : See it on Netflix or Cable
Manchester by the Sea, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, is the the story of Lee Chandler, a janitor in Quincy, Massachusetts, who must return to his hometown of Manchester by the Sea, in order to take care of things after his older brother dies. The film stars Casey Affleck as Lee, with notable supporting turns from Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges.
At its heart, Manchester by the Sea is more a character study than a narrative driven film. As a character study it does well, but sadly as a compelling narrative it doesn't measure up. The best part of the film without question are the performances of Casey Affleck and Michele Williams. Affleck is an underrated actor who has turned in some remarkable performances in the past, most notably his exquisite portrayal of Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Affleck's work in Manchester by the Sea is contained, genuine and confident. Affleck allows silences to work for him and never pushes to hard for a pre-ordained result.
The problem with Affleck's performance, and with the film as a whole, is that the character Lee Chandler, is not a unique or original one. Chandler is yet another emotionally repressed and remote Boston guy with a quick wit who expresses himself exclusively with his fists and only after he's had a few beers. I think with Manchester by the Sea we have officially hit Peak Boston. In addition to last years Oscar winner Spotlight, we've also had Black Mass, The Town, The Fighter, Ted, Gone Baby Gone, The Departed, Shutter Island, Mystic River, and Good Will Hunting just to name a few. I enjoyed many of those films a great deal, but enough already. Lee Chandler is just an extension of a thousand other Boston movie tough guys with limited emotional intelligence but who have wicked shahp tongues, hahts of gold and fists of fury. Affleck brings this all too often seen character to life with great skill, but that doesn't make it any less predictable and tiresome.
Having spent a great deal of time in Boston I can tell you that I have never met a real-life Lee Chandler (or the thousand other Boston movie tough guys), he might as well be a unicorn who poops rainbows. This Boston tough guy unicorn has dominated much of popular culture for the last twenty years or so, but that doesn't make it true. While everyone in Boston may think of themselves as tough guys, they sure as hell aren't. Yes, there are most definitely some tough guys in Boston, without a doubt, but certainly not more than anywhere else, and at this point I think there are more movies about tough guys from Boston than there are actual tough guys in Boston. What I think Boston has more than anywhere else are insecure guys with inferiority complexes who wish they were tough, so they write tough guy characters as wish fulfillment. Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Mark Wahlberg have made careers out of playing the Boston tough guy unicorn. Good for them, they have done it well. Sandy Duncan made a career out of playing Peter Pan, but that doesn't make him real either.
Think of it this way, New Englanders fanatically love their sports teams, and there are lots of sports commentators and writers that hail from Boston, hell most of ESPN is from Boston. You know what doesn't come from Boston, or all of New England for that matter? Professional athletes. New England produces lots of people who talk and write about sports, but not many who excel at them. The statistics are pretty amazing. If you take the populations of Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island and add them together it comes to 11,136,698, which makes New England the 8th most populous "state" in the U.S. If you look at the number of professional athletes that come out of New England, the region terribly underperforms compared to its population rate. For instance, there are currently 11 NFL players from New England which ranks them 34th out of 46 states(46 instead of 50 since you combine the New England states into one) which is well below their population rank of 8. There are 6 NBA players from New England, which ranks 21st out of 46 states, again well below their population rank. And there are 13 MLB players which ranks 12th, much better comparatively, but still below their population rank. And you can't blame the lack of athletes on the cold weather either, as a state like Minnesota which has about half the population of New England, at 5.5 million, outperforms New England in two of the three major sports (NFL 20, NBA 7, MLB 6). Why am I rambling on about professional sports and New England in a review of Manchester by the Sea? Well, because the same thing holds true for tough guys…Boston produces a lot of guys who talk and write about being tough guys, but not a lot of actual tough guys. Which is why, after all my time in Boston, I have never met a Lee Chandler…or a Will Hunting, or a whatever tough guy little Marky Mark Wahlberg is pretending to be this week.
You know who I have met? A Randi, Lee Chandler's wife played by Michelle Williams. William's portrayal is so great that she gets completely lost within it. Her accent is spot on and never forced or mannered. Her character is so well done that you feel like you know her personally. Williams is one of the best actresses working today and her work in Manchester by the Sea is a testament to her glorious talent and sublime skill. Her Randi is so real and so human that it hurts to watch her even as she luminously lights up the screen. Williams allows Randi to hide in plain sight, making her a marvel to behold.
Lucas Hedges does a good job as well as Lee's 16 year old nephew. Hedges plays the awkward coolness of adolescence with a bravado and innocence that suits the character and the story very well. I am not very familiar with Hedge's work, but am looking forward to seeing what else he does after his solid performance in Manchester by the Sea.
Sadly, the entirety of the other supporting actors, including Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol and Matthew Broderick, as well as the smaller roles, are really not good at all, in fact, they are distractingly bad. The supporting actors try to hit the Boston accent just right, but they either hit it too hard or they hit the wrong note with it. Look, the Boston accent is a difficult one for non-natives to master, even two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks has embarrassed himself on numerous occasions trying to do one, but that doesn't mean it isn't crucial to the film. Whenever you hear a bad accent it takes you out of the movie going experience. You are reminded once more that what you are watching is fake and your suspension of disbelief gets broken. Chandler and Mol are both very good actors, Chandler's work on Friday Night Lights and Mol's on Boardwalk Empire and in The Notorious Betty Page are monuments to that, but in Manchester by the Sea they are overwhelmed by the accent and are never able to ground their performances in any sort of truth.
At the end of the day, Manchester but the Sea is a decent enough film, but not nearly as great as it thinks it is. The film has an air of art house hype and arrogance to it that it never lives up to. While Affleck's performance kept me captivated for two hours, and Michelle Williams kept me enthralled for the entirety of her brief screen time, the film itself lacks that sort of artistic charisma due to a shortage of originality.
I recommend you see the film on Netflix or cable in order to witness firstly, Michelle Williams outstanding supporting acting and secondly Casey Affleck's layered lead performance. Another positive for the film is that it also has the scenery of the New England coastline as its background which is gorgeous to look at and is beautifully shot, and adds a picture post card setting to counter Affleck's inner demons, of that there is no doubt. While I didn't hate Manchester by the Sea, I also wasn't deeply moved or artistically impressed by it either. It is a middle of the road film buoyed by two strong performances. Unless you are itching for a night out, in my opinion you can wait for the film to show up on Netflix or cable before seeing it.
And maybe, just maybe, since with Manchester by the Sea we have undoubtedly hit Peak Boston, the center of the cultural universe can now shift slightly further west to some other city with a deep seeded insecurity and inferiority complex…maybe to Philadelphia, although they had Rocky, or Baltimore, although they had The Wire, or Pittsburgh, or Cleveland or…Toledo…anywhere but Boston. Enough already with the Boston thing. With Manchester by the Sea we have officially reached market saturation of Boston-ness, it may have been fun while it lasted but I think it's time to move on. Goodbye Boston…hello Buffalo?