For months I’ve been hearing nonstop talk about Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea, which seemed to be the only film out of Sundance that could, at the time, find any coverage outside of Nate Parker’s Birth Of A Nation. As the year has gone on, Manchester has chugged along and slowly been building steam as one of the three Oscar heavyweights. It was named Best Picture by the National Board of Review, with lead actor Casey Affleck winning Best Actor honors from both the Gotham Independent Awards and New York Film Critic’s circle.
For months, Michelle Williams was pegged as the one to beat in Best Supporting Actress (the NYFCC named her their pick in that category yesterday) until it was announced Viola Davis would be running in that category for Fences. Director/writer Kenneth Lonergan won a screenplay award from the NYFCC, and is expected to go head to head with Moonlight‘s Barry Jenkins for Original Screenplay at the Oscars.
*Phew* okay, so with all that hype behind it, you’d think that Manchester By The Sea would be not just a thoroughly engaging movie, but one filled with incredible performances. I mean, besides La La Land (which I have not seen yet) this is Moonlight‘s biggest Oscar competition after all, at this point. I mean, you’d think that, right? You’d be wrong. Manchester By The Sea is, in a word, pointless. It’s a film that asks you to stay with it as it wallows in grief and despair with absolutely zero emotional pay off.
The story follows Lee Chandler (Affleck), a lonely Boston janitor who receives word that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died due to a deadly heart condition. He immediately travels back to Manchester to take care of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) as he attempts to hold things down as the funeral is planned. When he finds out that his brother named him as Patrick’s guardian, his world begins to spiral. To take on the responsibility of becoming a surrogate parent not only means Lee would be uprooted from the existence he’s carved out for himself doing manual labor, but forces him to confront the terrible mistake he made in his past.
I won’t spoil what that mistake is, as it’s a pretty defining moment in the film (the only defining moment, actually) and more or less explains why Lee is such an internalized, emotionally stunted individual. We learn it in flashbacks, as Lee remembers the happier times with his brother and his former wife Randi (Michelle Williams, in a glorified cameo) and three children. He begins settling into his role taking care of Patrick, with some of the film’s best moments amounting to watching Affleck and Hedges deliver dialogue back and forth.
The problem, is that after 2 hours and 17 minutes of melodrama, nothing really changes. Patrick is still the same entitled smart ass he was when we are first introduced to him, despite a major character arc involving his estranged mother that seems promising at first but doesn’t go anywhere. Lee is still as prickly and introverted as he was in the very beginning, and given the weight of the burden he carries throughout the film I guess it’s realistic that he didn’t wind up a changed man. That being said, none of this makes for an engaging filmgoing experience; it constantly feels like we’re simply enduring all of this misery. Why did this movie need to be made, exactly?
After being thoroughly engaged in the first hour, I checked my phone several times during the last half that just seemed to never end. The much talked about scene confrontation between Affleck and Williams is jaw droppingly bad. If there’s anyone that’s cheated by Manchester that isn’t the audience, it’s Michelle Williams who delivers just a bad performance. She’s not helped by the script’s disinterest in her character, however; this is Affleck’s and Hedges’ show after all. The scene is asking you to empathize with the emotional plight of these two estranged characters, despite not really knowing much about them when they were together outside of the very terrible thing that happened in their past. It just doesn’t work, and in the year of Naomie Harris in Moonlight (a true, brilliant supporting performance), it’s an embarrassment and a bit confusing that Williams is a frontrunner in that category.
Affleck is fine; his performance is quiet, but effective. He reigns in the film as it meanders off into a million and one directions. With Best Actor being so incredibly dry this year outside of Denzel Washington in Fences, I *guess* I get why he’s a frontrunner? Although, it’s absolutely irresponsible not to discuss the allegations of abuse that have followed him. We should not be rewarding a man who has this kind of history. Although, in the grand tradition of the Oscars (Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and now potentially Mel Gibson too this year *groan*), I guess it’s not all that shocking he’s coasting to that inevitable Oscar nomination, and potential win.
Bottom line, Manchester needed some more time in the editing room. There are several segments from the middle portion that could have been gutted. Especially since this is not a film about emotional or personal growth. To steal from Seinfeld for a moment, this is a movie about nothing. Quite literally. And it’s a joke that this is the film giving Moonlight such a run for its money awards wise. Manchester wishes it had even half of the emotional power Moonlight has in its first chapter, let alone the rest of the film.
At least the score is great though, right?
Oscar Chances: As I mentioned, the film is a frontrunner in Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress and Screenplay. Best Director is getting a bit crowded, but Lonergan is probably a safe bet. Lucas Hedges seems to be winning some traction in a very dry Best Supporting Actor race, and the film could be a player in Original Score as well.