The welcome return of sad Ben Affleck
In The Way Back, the Hollywood A-lister returns to his underdog comfort zone
In a world with so much access to gossip, we should be accustomed to what we know (or think we know) about the "real" lives of movie stars bleeding into their work, creating a hybrid of their on-screen and off-screen personas. But it's still striking to watch the opening moments of The Way Back and notice all the ways it looks like a portrait of Sad Ben Affleck: His heftier frame, a five o'clock shadow that's blossomed into a full beard, casually heavy drinking, and even glimpses of elaborate tattoos peeking out from his sleeves. It's a little more intimate than something a paparazzi might capture (he's seen sipping on shower beers) and depicted with more dingy-looking artistry (a muted, gritty texture to the cinematography), but the parallels are inescapable.
Not that Affleck has been trying to escape them. His playing of an alcoholic former high school basketball star in Gavin O'Connor's The Way Back, out Friday, has dovetailed with press profiles that cover his own real-life attempts to stay sober, especially in the aftermath of his divorce. Jack Cunningham, his Way Back character, is separated from his wife, and not so different from a character he played around this time last year in Triple Frontier — another guy who cracks beers in his car with major Divorced Dad energy.
The new movie in particular feels like a comeback for Affleck. In the press, this means a reintroduction of the happier, healthier movie star who's amassed multiple hits and Oscar wins over the years, but who somehow manages to wind up perpetually underestimated. The first time Affleck had a run of bad career luck, in 2003 and 2004, he reinvented himself as a prestigious director, and eventually gave himself some plumb roles. For a little while, it seemed like Warner Bros. was going to make him their new Clint Eastwood; they gave him money to direct and star in the period gangster movie Live by Night and anointed him their new Batman.
It didn't quite work out (though Warner Bros. still seems provisionally interested; they're distributing The Way Back). Live by Night flopped with critics and audiences, and while Affleck garnered some fan appreciation for his take on Bruce Wayne, general reactions to Batman v. Superman and Justice League (as well as his own issues) helped put an end to his tenure. The role has since been recast and rebooted again.
These rough patches have become customary for Affleck, and now seem inextricably linked to his strengths as a star. He's most immediately likable when he's struggling: Think of his lovelorn comic-book writer in Chasing Amy, or the rough-hewn best friend he played in Good Will Hunting (both in 1997, his breakout year). That flailing quality may be why he was more effective as George Reeves, the actor who played Superman on TV, in the noir Hollywoodland, than he was as "real" superheroes Daredevil or Batman.
His Batman actually nods at a middle-aged version of Affleck's winner-who-can't-win quality: He plays the superhero as older, more grizzled, and regretful, with graying hair and a frequently pained expression. Gone Girl can be similarly read as a meta-commentary on the Affleck persona. But what was sly and shaded in that movie felt, in his Batman movies, like an actor actively resisting his role. He seemed to be taking palpable discomfort in playing the hero of a blockbuster franchise, as if the inevitable cosmic punishment for his success was catching up to him immediately, rather than one or two movies later. Maybe audiences don't always embrace a winning Affleck because he doesn't seem to, either.
Self-destructive tendencies are at the forefront of The Way Back, where Affleck's Cunningham is coaxed into coaching a floundering basketball team at his old high school. He stumbles through it at first, then cuts down on the drinking and starts paying attention to his young charges, and teaching them to, yes, play as a team — while battling his own demons, from both his distant and recent past. It's a somewhat grittier version of a sports movie Disney used to put out once or twice a year (it might bring to mind Glory Road if anyone remembered that particular iteration). If O'Connor gives the anguished white-dude coach even more screen time than the minority kids he supervises, there's at least a genre-based reason: This is as much a recovery drama as an underdog sports movie, and it's perceptive about the ways that even miraculous shots at redemption aren't as smooth as underdog stories can make them out to be.
Affleck does fine, sensitive work in this role, seemingly attuned to the routines and comforts of alcoholism. The movie is both enhanced and limited by his star power; there's a subtle bit of ego to the flatness of the movie's other characters, and even to Jack's tragic backstory. This gradually revealed "motivation" for his drinking problem is moving, but it also feels crammed in, an exploration of grief that The Way Back doesn't have enough time to do justice. This gives the movie some faint echoes of the mild self-aggrandizement and false modesty seen in Affleck's self-directed performances. What lingers about The Way Back is Affleck's willingness to confront his character's sadness and anger, even or especially if it hits close to home. Some actors are no longer convincing in underdog stories once they surpass a certain level of fame. Affleck is the rare movie star defined as much by his failures as his successes.
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