Early in The Town, Ben Affleck’s muscular, violent 2010 tale of the lives of outlaws in Charlestown, Mass., the lead character(played by Affleck) tells a story about his mother leaving his family when he was 6 years old. One detail of the story is that the family dog went missing the year before.
“We lawst ah dawg the yeeah befaw. I wantid t’make these postis, in case my mutha was lawst, someone could cawl us. Like da guy who found ah dawg.”
It might be the funniest line in the entire movie, even though it’s most definitely not meant to be. Naturally, there’s nothing humorous at all about the loss of a pet or someone’s mom. But the way Affleck delivers the line, in the thickest, most robust Boston accent the Cambridge, Mass., native can summon, definitely evokes laughter.
Fast forward a little over six years. Affleck now has a new movie set partially in Boston called Live by Night, while Patriots Day, Peter Berg’s take on the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, stars area native Mark Wahlberg. Affleck’s brother Casey is a favorite for this year’s best actor Oscar for Manchester by the Sea, another Massachusetts-set film out right now.
As a Boston native, I’ve watched with fascination as the city and its surrounding region have become fixtures of popular culture ever since the elder Affleck and Matt Damon exploded onto the scene with their Oscar-winning monolith Good Will Hunting. That was followed by the acclaimed Mystic River and The Departed, leading to more movies set in the area. But with The Town, entertaining and professionally crafted as it is, it felt as though a shift had occurred, away from genuine, original characters and situations in favor of predictable Boston platitudes and banalities.
Now, we are careening full-speed toward simply having too much Boston in our filmed entertainment. The portrayal of Massachusetts’s capital city has become reductive to the point of an eye-roll. With every slow, majestic aerial shot of the city’s skyline, every feeble attempt at the accent, even the accents that are right but way over the top, it feels more like a genre unto itself, and a most uninspired one at that.
So many protagonists in Boston movies are either 1) working class, blue collar, down on his or her luck with a heart of gold, or 2) working class, blue collar, down on his or her luck and a drunken buffoon. Most of them are cops or criminals.
This might be one reason audiences and critics haven’t liked Live by Night and Patriots Day. Affleck’s film, the first he’s directed since Argo won best picture, earned only $6.2 million in its opening over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, has made just over $10 million total and, per Variety, will force Warner Bros. to take a $75 million bath. This is a disaster made even more apparent by its 33 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s really, really not fresh.
Meanwhile, Patriots Day performed much better, both critically (79 percent Rotten Tomatoes score) and commercially ($13.7 million in its opening over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend), yet its $28 million domestic gross comes up well short of its $45 million budget. Some observers have directed disdain toward Wahlberg for his involvement in the project, in which he is the only fictional character in the movie — and he just so happens to be present at every critical juncture of the story. The portrayal is rooted in Hollywood stereotypes of a bro from Boston, the tough and gritty but loyal dude from the neighborhood who knows everybody’s name.
Some critics and moviegoers have noted a movie about a 2013 disaster feels too soon. And wondered who it’s for, given that there is no new information or angle provided; the movie is simply a recreation of events. And wondered why anyone felt that the best way to honor the victims and the survivors of that devastating day was to make a glitzy action movie about it.
But those are topics for another conversation. It’s the Wahlberg character’s failure to be a fully developed, original person who actually existed alongside everyone else that detracts from its sense of realism, taking the viewer out of the movie and into something that feels both phony and cynical.
Live by Night moves from Boston to Tampa, around the start of its second act, but there’s still plenty of time beforehand for Affleck to engage in self-parody, from his descriptions of specific locales in that same, over-the-top accent he mastered in The Town (“I left Lahrince, dumpt de getaway cah rin Nawth Reddin, and went t’my childhood home in Sumavul”), to his portrayal of a character at least 20 years younger than himself.
Ben’s baby bro Casey softens things a bit, first by sending the whole enterprise up in the SNL faux ad for the ubiquitous, New England-based Dunkin’Donuts chain. It was his only nod toward his home town of the entire episode.
And while his character in Manchester by the Sea has an accent (which he didn’t even want to do) and lives in the suburb of Quincy, the Boston aesthetic is very underplayed throughout, telling a story with characters who are from the area but by no means defined by it. The only drawback is Kyle Chandler’s accent; he joins Jack Nicholson in The Departed and Laura Linney in Mystic River among the handful of top-notch actors who should be banned from ever attempting a Boston accent again.
So that’s where we’re at when it comes to Boston in the movies (with the notable exception of Spotlight, the Oscar-winning portrayal of how the Boston Globe investigated sexual abuse by Catholic priests). More often than not, either the portrayal is lazy, played out and riddled with cliches, or it’s broadened into a comedy routine to go down more easily. Making art on this particular canvas has been reduced to a handful of brushstrokes audiences have seen made over and over again already. Manchester by the Sea and Spotlight show that this is a fixable problem, if anyone cares to repair it.
The Massachusetts Film Office lists six movies wrapping up production in the Greater Boston area. We’ll soon find out if any of them can break the pattern.