Double Take, Film

DOUBLE TAKE: Ben Affleck

Six flicks of the 'Fleck

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DOUBLE TAKE is a series within Cinema Quarantino that touches upon an actor’s career through a selected list of movies to watch. Not to be taken scholarly or seriously.

CONTEXT

Long ago, there was a rumor in my high school about Boston becoming Hollywood of the East Coast, which probably derived from the increasing number of productions in or around the city. Talking about it had sparked some humble recollections of those who rose from our neighborhoods (unfortunately, the BU alumni won’t be discussed here — sorry, Julianne Moore!). Several actors have become prominent Boston Bros who collectively represent the outsider’s perspective of the city: white, male, ambiguously working-class-looking. I have no intention of covering the entire legion (especially Mark “I forgive myself for being racist” Wahlberg), nor do I feel that they necessarily deserve any more praise than same-tier peers. When I decided on Ben Affleck, I do it in the spirit that he’s what the city deserves.

His personal and professional life have mixed and mingled for most of his career. At the time of this writing, he struck us in the face with his rekindled romance with Jennifer Lopez. I’d normally be in deep discussion about the timely convenience of Bennifer (or, as a tweet dares to revolutionize, Jenjamin) during the romantic troughs in their lives, but ridiculing Affleck feels too easy. In recent months alone, the Internet has dogpiled on Affleck’s unfavorable antics: the cringe-worthy video response to a woman who unmatched him on Raya, the Renaissance-inspired pap shot of him battling a tray full of large Dunkin cups, the “landscaper” who looks eerily like Casey Affleck throwing away a cardboard cut-out of Ana de Armas after their breakup. In the eyes of the paparazzi and those who bear to witness, Affleck is on a losing streak.

Even as a pop culture vulture, I initially didn’t care to peck at his woes. When there was speculation about a large post-divorce phoenix tattoo on his back, Affleck had first said it was for a movie role. The lie created a strange Streisand effect, where suddenly everyone needs to know if it was real. In a paparazzi photo that mirrors Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, Affleck is standing pensively on the lapping tides of the beach shore while his Triple Frontier colleagues were prancing in the background. The full display of his red-and-yellow avian companion revealed the truth that he himself may have been thinking on that day: he’s going through a weird time.

No man is immune to the chance of tomfoolery at a certain age that we call a midlife crisis. Oscar-winnerTaiki Waititi, who could have sat there and ate his Marvel-compensated food, was reportedly in trouble after his rambunctious outings following his 2018 separation with his wife. But to some attention is a thrill, and Affleck, who once appeared on a 2002 Rolling Stone cover with “Surviving Jennifer” branded in the corner, seems to seek it. Impressively, his shenanigans have been able to anchor his name to relevancy even as the stars of future generations have come and gone. I, a mere observing mortal, only have a proposal for him and his future works.

It came to me when I was watching Jersey Girl. Out of habitual obligation to movies that don’t require critical thought, I saw it thinking that it would be Kevin Smith humor for the masses. First of all, it was not. Secondly, I was caught off-guard by a scene that should have been left unnoticed and unmemorable. After neglecting his daughter for his work schedule, Affleck’s character decides to charm her with a horse-drawn carriage ride in Central Park. His daughter, adequately acted by Raquel Castro, is having the time of her life. He gazes down at her with a smile: a reaction that the audience presumably equates his happiness in response to his daughter’s. But it’s off. He doesn’t really look down so far as much as his eyes seem to shift down leeringly. He smiles, but it seems like the recipient is someone more important, as if what he really wanted to do was to pat himself on the back. That, my friend, is a smile of villains. They ride-off screen, and the scene ends.

I should state that I don’t particularly think that Affleck is a grand man. I find something sinister about his public announcement of donating future profits of his Miramax films after he 1) most likely knew about Weinstein, and 2) has accusations stacked against him of being a serial groper. At this point, Boston doesn’t need any more representations of action-type heroes in the vein of Bruce Wayne or Jack Ryan; we need villains.

Affleck is best when he plays the bad guy because it’s the most believable. Maybe that speaks to the breadth of his abilities, but sometimes you gotta play the cards that you’re dealt. That’s why Gigli doesn’t bother me as much as it did with others; it fits into the Masshole persona both on- and off-camera, where him losing is in our best interests. Here, we’ll see why Affleck being a good guy is intolerable, and Affleck being intolerable makes for a good performance.

ACTING QUALIFICATIONS (TW: TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD FLIRTING)

VIBES

A self-hating party that smells of a Dunkin iced coffee left next to the banister of a Red Line station staircase for a couple of days.


THE LINEUP

1) GLORY DAZE dir. Rich Wilkes

1995 | 100 mins | trailer | available on Crackle

“Angst for the memories.” – Jack 

Anyone with an inkling of Ben Affleck’s earlier acting days, even prior to writing the Good Will Hunting script, would be cognizant of his participation in independent projects. His longtime collaborator, Kevin Smith, would cast him as a slacker-type bully or a character equipped with mean sentiments befitting the day-to-day nihilism of Smith characters. Instead of listing some of the obvious choices (Mallrats and Chasing Amy, for me), I opted to bring attention to Glory Daze, another relic from a Gen Xer’s tattooed sleeve. I can’t convince you to care about characters who are not supposed to care, but I care! Affleck is Jack, a college senior who wants to keep the roommates together for another year instead of going their separate ways after graduation. He’s immature, but when his emotions are raw, our responses are more attuned to the fastball realism of growing up, rather than needing to attend the pity party he throws for himself. Also, this film is enjoyable in the way that B-list movies should be, from the set pieces of a well-lived-in fraternity house to peddling down Californian streets to the Vandals.

2) ARMAGEDDON dir. Michael Bay

1998 | 151 mins | trailer | available to rent

“I asked Michael why it was easier to train oil drillers to become astronauts than it was to train astronauts to become oil drillers, and he told me to shut the fuck up, so that was the end of that talk.” – Ben Affleck

It’s amusing when I see celebrity quotes about resiliency or courage, which often end up being so commonplace that they could have been said by anyone. However, if there is one quote that is certainly an Affleck contribution, it would be the above line from his DVD commentary for the mega-disaster film Armageddon, directed by mogul of mega Michael Bay. This sort of sass defines his role as A.J. Frost, a driller who works under Bruce Willis’s Harry, the intelligent owner of an oil company. Armageddon begins Affleck’s stampede into stardom, casting him as co-lead alongside Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, a bunch of other men, and the singular female presence Liv Tyler. When an incoming meteor is set to destroy Earth, NASA decides that the best course of action is to send men to the meteor, drill to its core, and implode it from inside. They hire Harry and, to their chagrin, his company men to send to space. While Affleck’s logic makes sense (and he loves to bring it up), Armageddon is Bay’s universe, and in space, astronaut and driller are the same.

Affleck still plays a rapscallion of sorts, but his venture into protagonist territory is made possible by the notion of eternal love. Romance/action roles seem to be his best known from the early 2000s, and you can keep that in mind if you happen to be coordinating these roles with his love life and public scandals.

3) THE SUM OF ALL FEARS dir. Phil Alden Robinson

2002 | 124 mins | trailer | available on Hulu

“With all due respect, sir, I don’t think that adds up.”
“It adds up. You just don’t like what it adds up to.” 

Ben Affleck directing Argo was not totally out of left field. He was a Middle Eastern studies major at Occidental College, which he brought up when he was working on the Tom Clancy novel-adaptation, The Sum of All Fears. Affleck plays a pre-action Jack Ryan,  a CIA analyst with a special interest in incoming Russian president Alexander Nemerov. What happens here, besides every bad thing that could happen in US-Russian tensions, is that Affleck is turning to meatier roles — that is, if the meat is the brain. He plays intelligence to acceptable levels, but his delivery is that of the annoying intern who shouldn’t be allowed to correct senior generals. It’s youth, respectable skin, and old-fashioned savior values that prevail, but with Affleck yelling at people to make a point, it feels like America lost something.

4) PAYCHECK dir. John Woo

2003 | 119 mins | trailer | available on Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Fubo

“That would be the Red Sox.” – Rachel

I deliberately skipped other blockbusters, like Pearl Harbor or Daredevil, to get to this off-season action film. If I’m speaking objectively, this is a terrible movie. But underneath the million-dollar box office accruements, Affleck has a set of terrible movies. Like, arguably a 3:2 bad-to-good ratio. I wanted to avoid romantic movies because the genre gets a lot of flack from critics, and Gigli already has a featured exhibition in the Seven Circles of Hell.

Such is my biweekly dream. Paycheck is the titular goal for Affleck’s Michael Jennings. He gets assigned to top-secret, well-paid assignments. Once they’re completed, his memory of past months is erased through high-temperature application to his lobes. After one particularly lucrative years-long assignment, Michael comes to find that his past self has given up the money and instead left a manila envelope of random items. Nefarious events follow, and it becomes clear that Past Michael has set Present Michael up with those specific items to cleverly escape from the bad guys.

Paycheck exemplifies my realization about Affleck’s acting from Jersey Girl: a self-indulgent performance. The issue I have with Past Michael creating this convoluted convenience with the envelope of items (and maybe this criticism can extend to Memento) is that it looks like a weird magician’s exercise that strokes the protagonist’s ego rather than convincing the audience that it was a good trick.

5) TO THE WONDER dir. Terrence Malick

2012 | 112 mins | trailer | available on Kanopy

“I know that strong feelings make you uneasy.” – Olga

POV: You’re Cinderella, married to Prince Charming and living a fabulous post-housekeeper life. Because you can, you host a weekly ball at the castle, where all the girls bring their men over. It’s an adorable attempt, but in everyone’s hearts of hearts, you know that you and your Prince will wow everyone again, because that is the natural course of this fairy tale. This week, once again, you sashay across the floor with him and feeling like a million bucks. But in the center of the ballroom, you notice that there’s a broomstick, still and unmoved. You’re confused. Did the Fairy Godmother forget to change him back? Why is the spotlight on him? Why did the Prince excuse himself and start heading his way over there?

In Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, Malick is Prince Charming, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is the Fairy Godmother,  and Ben Affleck is the broomstick.

To his credit, it’s what the script was looking for. Ukrainian Marina (Olga Kurylenko) meets American Neil (Affleck) in Paris, falls in love, and follows him to the States. Her romantic nature is at odds with his broomstick guarded nature. The character’s dead-on-arrival delivery is on par with Malick’s muted display of disintegrating relationships. He’s not meant to be a good or bad guy here. All the same, even vast meadows, pastel sunsets, and the notion of eternal love don’t save Affleck from being out of place in his own home.

6) GONE GIRL dir. David Fincher

2014 | 149 mins | trailer | available on Hulu

“I pretended to be better than I was.” – Nick 

In the years that have gone by since the days of Kevin Smith and Dazed and Confused, Affleck hasn’t relied much on the role of a traditional villain.* Even in The Town, his robbery shenanigans were cushioned by his love for Rebecca Hall (though their “meet-cute” was weirdly inappropriate and would be considered heinous under a different director). However, no role articulated the media frenzy that Affleck has been through quite like Nick in Gone Girl. Has there ever been a case of miscasting in a David Fincher film?

The movie itself is fantastic and helped set up the trend of unreliable female-centric narratives, but the twists and turns of the whodunit (and in this case, did Nick kill his wife, Amy?) feels so on-the-nose to how I feel about Affleck. He might be an overall good guy, but under heat, he’ll be as conniving and terrible as he needs to be. His resistance to losing is just the cherry on top.

Upon review, it seems like he was the antagonist in 2009’s State of Play and 2013’s Runner Runner but Justin Timberlake being the hero sounds criminal.


FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION

Jersey Girl (dir. Kevin Smith, 2004) | Though this film is why this article exists, I cannot recommend this film in good conscience. It just seemed polite to mention it here.

The Way Back (dir. Gavin O’Connor, 2020) | If you want to choose violence today, you can argue that this film balances Ben Affleck’s personal experiences while allowing him to be a protagonist of sorts. Him choosing vulnerable drama roles — that is an interesting take.

His Oscar speeches (1997, 2013) | Despite the antagonistic vibes from this article, I’m rooting for the day where I don’t have an opinion about him. Is he funny? Is he likable? I don’t wanna know! These earnest Oscar speeches might just help us remember that at the end, he’s just a Boston bro.

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