Full of Beans
By Justin Stewart
Dir. Ben Affleck, U.S., Warner Brothers
“It's Heat meets The Departed!” shout the TV ads, forgivable marketing puffery that the entertaining but chronically hackneyed The Town can't possibly begin to live up to. There are certainly traces of both, as bank heists that spill onto daylight streets with deafening automatic weapons will now always be assumed nods to Michael Mann's classic. And director Affleck no doubt hesitated before setting yet another crime movie on Boston's hardscrabble white streets following his previous movie, the similar Gone Baby Gone, not to mention the Scorsese picture.
But the fact is, of the slew of modern Boston crime films, The Town, with its story of two criminal friends seeking opposite paths, an imperiled father-son relationship, and a bland romance, most closely resembles 2008’s ignored What Doesn't Kill You. I championed Brian Goodman's small movie in Reverse Shot because it overcame this potentially drab blueprint with understated acting and resourceful action scenes. The Town, too, has moments, though fewer, during which you forget its generic nature, but because of its celebrity director and the presence of a Mad Men hunk and a Gossip Girl, it'll receive far more attention than What Doesn't Kill You, which has been forgotten (even despite my championing!).
The Town is an improvement on Gone Baby Gone, an adequate movie that nevertheless left a taste of bile in the mouth due to Dennis Lehane's repellent, witless dialogue and the exploitative seediness of every encounter between Casey Affleck's detective character and various Boston underground lowlifes. Despite the buzziness of the casting, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, and Blake Lively do bring presences less humdrum than those offered by sturdy Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris in the previous film. Chuck Hogan's novel Prince of Thieves provides a less sensationalizing, more fact-based source than the Lehane book that inspired Gone Baby Gone. And Affleck also wisely sets his movie in a very specific section of Boston little explored on film—Charlestown, a recently gentrifying neighborhood that has produced more bank and armored car robbers than any one square mile in the world, one of several portentous prefacing title cards informs us.
The director stars as Doug, and following those opening fact-quotes and some of his monotone “these streets ah haahd” narration, he and his partners suit up with vests and skeleton masks for a bank robbery, dutifully loud, kinetic, and violent enough to jumpstart the action in traditional heist movie fashion. When an alarm is tripped, the unhinged Jem (Renner) pounds a manager with the butt of his weapon, and the crew choose to kidnap the quaking co-manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), whom they later mercifully discard (uninjured) on a beach. Worried about her having more to tell, Doug decides to follow Claire, and an encounter in a laundromat leads to an emotionally vulnerable moment and, then, a screenplay-convenient romance between criminal and victim. The dangerous liaison angers Jem when he finds out, both because it jeopardizes their safety and because it's tempting Doug to go straight, leaving the life of crime that is all Jem knows, and is in many ways an acceptable family trade in tough Charlestown. Hamm is the stubbly and single-minded FBI agent who definitely does not find it acceptable.
Affleck channels audience empathy to the criminals—an entirely expected move in 2010, though it's somewhat remarkable just how dully unsympathetic are Hamm’s Agent Frawley, who doesn't even talk with a Boston accent, and Detective Ciampa (Titus Welliver), an ex-townie alongside Doug and Jem, now seen as a rat by his former friends. A conference scene in a police control room seems to intentionally echo The Departed, which raises unflattering comparisons due to the lack of Baldwin, Wahlberg, and William Monahan's wit.
Doug, meanwhile, is saddled with weighty tragedy, related mostly in tedious speeches to Claire. His mother left home when he was young (he put up signs to find her like he had done with a lost dog), and his father is on indefinite lockup. As the latter, Chris Cooper gets one actor-y scene to cuss and do the same loud frowning thing he does in most roles. Not to be outdone, the Claire character is given a dead brother in her past, showing that yuppies suffer too and providing another reason why she might have chemistry and common ground with a rough townie like Doug (other than the fact that Hall is pretty and he looks like Affleck, who buffed up for his role). Jem's sister Krista is the tart who seems a more natural fit for Doug, and Lively's showy, slumming performance reminded me of a slightly less embarrassing version of Anne Hathaway's unintentionally funny ghetto act in Barbara Kopple's ridiculous Havoc.
Like Gone Baby Gone, The Town is too confident in its action scenes’ ability to balance out the overlong, moralizing dramatic stretches. As seen on the rather obnoxious movie posters, the crew perform one armored car robbery wearing nun wimples and masks, an oddly cumbersome-seeming choice that allows for a crowd-pleasing slow-motion shot of a young boy staring in shock at the passing van carrying the gun-toting women of the cloth. (It also allows for close-ups of stunt drivers, as the audience is none the wiser.) The narrow alleys and streets of Boston's North End, however, do make a convoluted maze for a tense, exciting escape. A climactic heist is boldly set at Fenway Park. It's a little like a movie about a giant ape amok in New York climaxing at the top of the Empire State, though here it seems like an overreach when considering The Town's multiple grasps at absolute realism.
Renner does the most with the least here, offering further evidence that his incredible Hurt Locker performance was no one-off. But the focus is on Affleck, and the “get out of the game after one last takedown” mindset of Doug is a convention too overdone. Affleck the director can't salvage the thing from a banality no media hype can wash away.