Tuesday, September 7, 2010
THE SECOND ACT OF AN AMERICAN LIFE
Ben Affleck has directed two features now. The second one looks like it's going to get nominated for Oscars, too. Everyone who remembers five years ago, can I get a “what the fuck?”
Careers do not usually defy expectations, especially for those who achieve massive, almost immediate success. Sustaining that initial good fortune is a difficult trick, being as it is so totally dependent on luck. The vast majority either sustain—for the fortunate, anointed few—or settle into a neutral state of ongoing, moderate fame. Or, in the cases that induce the most delicious flavor of schadenfreude in douchey nerds (present!), go up in a drugs-and-pussy mushroom cloud. Some of the neutrals luck into a late-career renaissance (one love, Alec Baldwin), but mushroom clouds almost never un-explode. Almost. There's one exception. “Robert Downey, Jr,” you might say, but he was more of a train with a smacked-out conductor at the wheel, that crashed into shit all the time and threatened to derail but kept magically jumping back onto the track (because no matter how many kiddie pools he was arrested in, he always made good pictures). No, the one true mushroom cloud recovery that comes to mind is B-Fleck.
Benjamin Geza Affleck was born on August 15th, 1972 in Berkeley, Calfornia, and spent his formative years in Cambridge Massachussetts, where he met longtime friend and future collaborator Matt Damon. He was reared in a household that supported creativity and progressive politics, and from a very early age, the tall-dark-and-handsome Affleck found success as an actor. His most visible early success was as part of the spectacular ensemble of Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, the single most baffling picture ever made in terms of being a predictor of its cast's future success. While Matthew McConaughey was certainly fucking hilarious as jailbait-chasing puer aeternus Wooderson, how the hell did Randall “Pink” Floyd not own the universe for the next fifteen years (it was his twin brother who was in Mallrats with B-Fleck later)? And how did Mitch Kramer not become his generation's Michael Cera, the dork Casanova? As—while undeniably great in the picture—the single least-appealing character in the movie, how did B-Fleck become its biggest star?
Well, because he was sitting around with childhood friend Matt Damon one day asking himself, “why am I not the biggest star in that picture yet?” Damon, similarly befuddled, went, “I don't fuckin know. How come I was in Mystic Pizza with Julia Roberts and she's already so famous she's starting to get less famous, and I'm sittin here drinkin beers with you?” B-Fleck said, “I don't fuckin' know.” But, rather than moan their balls off unproductively, the two decided to write a script together for them to star in.
The process of getting Good Will Hunting to the screen was almost too easy. Studios immediately dug the script, Rob Reiner was attached to direct or produce or something, and it was briefly mired in turnaround bullshit until Kevin Smith and Harvey Weinstein got involved. By that time, Damon had already turned some heads in Courage Under Fire and landed the lead in Francis Coppola's 90th “comeback” picture, and B-Fleck had developed a collaboration/friendship with the aforementioned Mr. Smith.
Good Will Hunting, the first feature either Matt Damon or B-Fleck had ever written, grossed over $100 mil on a budget of under 20, won them Oscars for Best Original Screenplay, and made them into an unprecedented, mildly gay, kind of superstar duo. In what began to look like an enormous mistake for B-Fleck in coming years, he immediately pulled the “no homo” card and went to work for Michael Bay, while Matt cultivated his “serious actor” brand and eventually struck gold with the Ocean's and Bourne series.
Largely due to the kind of pictures Matt made in the ensuing years, B-Fleck began to appear to value stardom more than art. This impression, especially as it relied on the contrast to his friend's career, was, in hindsight, unfair. What really happened was a horrible streak of bad luck. The pictures B-Fleck headlined from 1998-2003, while disparate in theme and genre, can all be grouped together under the heading “It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time.” A selection:
Armageddon (1998) dir. Michael Bay
Why it seemed like a good idea at the time: Michael Bay movies always make a shitload of money (except for The Island, which was actually a good movie, which confused everyone so much they couldn't find the theater, resulting in it flopping).
Why it ended up blowing up in B-Fleck's face: Armageddon fucking sucks. The only good scene in the movie—Bruce Willis chipping golf balls at the Greenpeace boat—is politically suspect, thus ruining even that fleeting joy. Still, Armageddon, suckage aside, did make a shitload of money.
Phantoms (1998) dir. Joe Chappelle
Okay, this was actually good. In Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, B-Fleck, playing his character from Chasing Amy, says “Affleck was the bomb in Phantoms,” and he was both tres meta and absolutely right.
Dogma (1999) dir. Kevin Smith
Why it seemed like a good idea at the time: B-Fleck and Kevin Smith were tight, this was the longstanding labor of love Smith had always wanted to make—in the credits for Clerks, it says something like, “Coming next: Dogma!”
Why it ended up blowing up in B-Fleck's face: It ended up being fucking terrible. The Catholics got their tits in a twist about all the alleged blasphemy, but the real blasphemy ended up being the sloppy direction, dumb script that wasn't as profound as it thought it was, and the waste of a great cast.
Forces of Nature (1999) dir. Bronwen Hughes
Why it seemed like a good idea at the time: Hey, it's Sandra Bullock. It's a romantic comedy. What could possibly go wrong? Also, Bronwen Hughes made a really good picture a couple years later called Stander with Thomas Jane. Which wasn't a romantic comedy, but hey, she's a good director.
Why it ended up blowing up in B-Fleck's face: One of the dirty little secrets that we're never supposed to talk about now that her jagoff husband cheated on her and she has an Oscar is that Sandra Bullock never has chemistry with her male co-stars. Well, except Ryan Reynolds. But that's part of her recent career renaissance. Back in the 90s, she still had the no-chemistry thing going, and this was no exception.
Bounce (2000) dir. Don Roos
Why it seemed like a good idea at the time: Making movies with your girlfriend is always a good idea.
Why it ended up blowing up in B-Fleck's face: The above is sarcasm.
Reindeer Games (2000) dir. John Frankenheimer
Why it seemed like a good idea at the time: John Frankenheimer made The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds once upon a time, both thirty-five shades of awesome.
Why it ended up blowing up in B-Fleck's face: Those pictures were over thirty-five years old at that point, and John Frankenheimer never made a good picture again afterward.
Boiler Room (2000) dir. Ben Younger
Again, another smaller movie that was actually kind of all right, but B-Fleck wasn't the lead. Early role for one Mr. Vincenzo Gasolina as well.
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001) dir. Kevin Smith
Yet again, smaller movie, not a lead performance. Some shreds of self-awareness and willingness to make fun of himself on display, and goddammit I love this movie. [Ed. Note: future post on why Kevin Smith's movie version of a greatest hits album is my favorite movie of his a distinct possibility]
Pearl Harbor (2001) dir. Michael Bay
Why it seemed like a good idea at the time: B-Fleck had made a couple good movies in a row, and hey, Armageddon made a shitload of money.
Why it ended up blowing up in B-Fleck's face: Armageddon was the second-worst picture Michael Bay ever made. This is the worst. Not only that, but the 78 fucktillion times I saw the trailer to this piece of shit rank a close second to only making it through 9/11 because I arbitrarily scheduled a morning job interview in one of the towers for the next day as my most traumatic experience of 2001.
The Sum of All Fears (2002) dir. Phil Alden Robinson
Why it seemed like a good idea at the time: Hey, it's Jack Ryan! The Hunt For Red October was awesome, Patriot Games was fun, and Clear and Present Danger . . . well . . . ok, forget Clear and Present Danger. Taking over for Harrison Ford should be a snap, right? Right . . .?
Why it ended up blowing up in B-Fleck's face: See above. The Sum of All Fears didn't suck as much as Clear and Present Danger, but it still sucked, as Tom Clancy novels do when you don't adapt the crap out of them in just the right way, and there's no way in hell someone who wasn't even 30 yet when this picture was filmed has the gravitas to take over for Harrison Ford. Shit, Harrison Ford didn't even blow up til he was over 30, even he needed to be over 30 to have the gravitas to be Harrison Ford. And he fucking is Harrison Ford.
Changing Lanes (2002) dir. Roger Michell
Another good movie, though B-Fleck's character is douchecuntpedophile levels of unlikable in it. This, however, would be his last halfway decent picture in this phase of his career, as 2003 had a one-two-three of fucktardery no mortal actor could possibly recover from on its way.
Daredevil (2003) dir. Mark Steven Johnson
Why it seemed like a good idea at the time: Uh . . . because comic book movies are popular . . .?
Why it blew up in B-Fleck's face: Comic book movies, alas, are usually terrible. You can count the ones that aren't on one hand (the first two Spider-Man movies, The Dark Knight, the first Iron Man . . . I'll try to think of one for the thumb). The effects looked cheesy, Colin Farrell's shaved head was more funny than scary, and the whole thing just feels cheap, which is unfortunate considering it cost 75 million fucking dollars.
Gigli (2003) dir. Martin Brest
Why it seemed like a good idea at the time: Martin Brest, once upon a time, directed Beverly Hills Cop and Midnight Run, two of B-Fleck's (and my) favorite movies. Also, making movies with your girlfriend is always a good idea.
Why it blew up in B-Fleck's face: See Reindeer Games; Martin Brest had long since lost his fastball. And Jennifer Lopez had long since made it her mission in life to make everyone who liked Out of Sight—in which she was spectacularly good—need a drink; her movies seem almost like they're trying to be bad. Even though Gigli wasn't as bad as everyone said it was, it's still one of the worst movies ever made.
Paycheck (2003) dir. John Woo
And, at long last, we have the final nail in B-Fleck's career's coffin. Look, the fucking title is Paycheck. I don't even have to make a joke. And I won't. The fact that this movie exists at all is a sign that we need Remedial Irony classes in our schools. This ended John Woo's sad run as a Hollywood hack as well. Philip K. Dick turned over in his fucking grave when this came out.
A couple more terrible B-Fleck movies would come out in 2004, but only because there's too much money at stake to just cancel shit in Hollywood. B-Fleck was getting motherfucked every day in the tabloids due to the tackiness and excess of his girlfriend's—and, more often than not, his own—attention whoring and money hemorrhaging. The decline and fall of B-Fleck and J-Ho's relationship was as tawdry and distasteful as its rise and peak. When the smoke cleared, B-Fleck found himself, basically, without a career.
His salvation would come in both intelligence and self-awareness. Unlike many of the other massively famous, B-Fleck realized that he'd become, not to put to fine a point on it, a bit of a joke. The career path upon which he'd set out when he first became famous was at an end, certainly.
B-Fleck quietly took up with, and married, Jennifer Garner, with whom he now has two children and a much more stable and quiet relationship. He quietly (and with a shocking minimum of look-at-me narcissism) became more involved with progressive politics. Where earlier, in the midst of his "I make Michael Bay movies and blow a hundred grand a night at poker" period, B-Fleck stumped for Gore in a way that made people actually not want to vote for Gore (god that 2000 election was a motherfucking mess), B-Fleck now worked more behind the scenes, occasionally popping up on Real Time With Bill Maher and managing to seem as smart as Salman Rushdie (no mean feat).
To relaunch his acting career, there could not have been a more perfect role than George Reeves in Hollywoodland. The parallels with B-Fleck's own career were subtle but present, and the idea of a man who became famous and ridiculous at the same time, and whose demise left everyone scratching their heads and concluding that he did it to himself, must have resonated. Amazingly, this comment on his own life and career, with all the attendant world-weariness, humility, and insight, came when B-Fleck was only 33.
Hollywoodland was but a first step along the new path. The second, far more decisive one, was Gone, Baby, Gone. Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane (whose Mystic River and Shutter Island have also been adapted for the screen, with varying degrees of success), Gone, Baby, Gone tells the story of Boston private detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro trying to find a missing four-year-old girl, which leads to an ending that is absolutely fucking devastating, and not in any way you might think at the outset.
Although based on the fourth in a series of five books, B-Fleck's Gone, Baby, Gone doesn't feel like it's missing any backstory. This is partly due to the unpredictable twin character arc of Kenzie and Gennaro in the novels; at the beginning of Gone, Baby, Gone, they're romantically involved, which gives the movie a much simpler jumping-off point than the “they hooked up in high school and suppressed their true love for each other while Patrick married Angie's sister and Angie ended up getting beaten up by her husband even though she can kick anyone's ass and through the emotional intensity of their previous case they ended up in bed together and now they're making a go of it” of the books. It's also because B-Fleck made a number of fortuitous choices in tone, visual aesthetic, and most importantly, casting.
The first two, which have a slight impact on the third, come from the many connections Gone, Baby, Gone has with The Wire. Lehane himself wrote several episodes and appears in a season 3 cameo as the evidence room cop who lets McNulty go in and take the surveillance device that they end up nailing Stringer's cell phone with, for one. For another, the movie and show share a naturalistic style in writing, acting, and cinematography. For a third, Amy “Beadie Russell” Ryan and Michael K. “Omar” Williams are both in it (though holy shit Amy Ryan can act: anyone capable of playing both Beadie Russell and Helene McCready is a fucking deity).
Top to bottom, the cast is on point. Morgan Freeman is Morgan Freeman (the thought of any director needing to give him notes is more blasphemous than anything in Dogma) but managing to keep Ed Harris from gnawing overmuch on the scenery is something any director, especially a first-timer, can hang his hat on. It was nice to see John Ashton again (another Beverly Hills Cop/Midnight Run shout-out from B-Fleck, in an impeccable display of taste) and he doesn't disappoint, perfectly cast.
Where B-Fleck made his best choice though was his leading man. When I first heard B-Fleck was going to be directing this, I thought “Ah fuck, he's doing this so he can play Patrick; while it's perfect casting, I nonetheless harbor doubts about whether or not this whole enterprise is a vanity project.” (Yes, I use semi-colons and words like nonetheless when I think, fuck off). Then I heard, no, B-Fleck isn't playing Patrick. Instead, he got his little brother: C-Fleck. I made the mistake I think a lot of people did, seeing C-Fleck playing a retard in To Die For and Good Will Hunting and thinking that was him. Sure, he's got that high-pitched, tremulous voice, but C-Fleck can fucking thesp. I didn't really realize it until Gone, Baby, Gone, but holy God that little motherfucker's good. And B-Fleck especially deserves credit for having the balls to cast C-Fleck, knowing everyone was going to roll their eyes and making drawling accusations of nepotism, but also knowing C-Fleck would rule.
B-Fleck made a number of changes to the book, all of them for the better (impressive, considering the book was already really good). The main one was changing this cartoon-character wigger drug dealer into a Haitian for the sheer fuck of it, and it worked splendidly. (Ed. Note: see if you can spot all forty of the mindfucks on the actor's Wikipedia page; seriously, his CV is so weird I swear his page has been vandalized).
Gone, Baby, Gone ended up winning an armload of awards, and in one stroke made it not only necessary but mandatory to take B-Fleck seriously again. He started getting acting gigs again, but mainly character parts in things that won't embarrass him (well, except He's Just Not That Into You, but hey, he's got kids to feed). However, the difference between directing a good movie and being a good director is the follow-up. And that follow-up drops on the 17th of this month.
The Town is getting delirious buzz. They're talking Oscars. B-Fleck's playing the lead in a picture he wrote directed. At this point in his career, though, and after seeing Gone, Baby, Gone, we can be reasonably sure that he's not jerking off into a mirror on some Orson Welles trip. He's doing this because he's the right actor for the part, we can assume. I want this picture to be very, very good. Not being religious, the whole notion of redemption usually makes me snore, but something about the way B-Fleck exploded, imploded, and emerged whole, a man, on the other side is impressive. It's as implausible as the shit in the movies he was making when he was shtupping Jenny from the block, but hey. Part of the universe's manifest sense of humor is that not even the most coked-up hack screenwriter can imagine anything with a higher “get the fuck out of here” factor than reality.