“Manchester by the Sea” Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

By on December 9, 2016

Director:

Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”)

Main Cast:

Casey Affleck (“Gone Baby Gone”, “Good Will Hunting”, Best Supporting Oscar nomination for “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”)

Michelle Williams (Oscar nominations for “Brokeback Mountain” (Best Supporting), “Blue Valentine”,  and “My Week with Marilyn”)

Lucas Hedges (“Moonrise Kingdom”, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”)

Running Time:  137 Minutes

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In looking at the high Rotten Tomatoes (97%) and IMDB (8.6) scores, I don’t think I was in the right frame of mind when I saw this movie.  I didn’t see the “beautiful” movie (which comes across as self-congratulatory) Matt Damon talks about on the commercials.  (“Manchester by the Sea” was originally to be Damon’s directorial debut.   He’s also one of its producers.)  What I saw was yet another movie about how ethnocentric, clannish, myopic, crass and antagonistic Boston’s blue-collar population can be and settings that are just as unappealing.  I think the closer in proximity you are to people like this, the less folksy charm the portrayals will have for you, unless you’re one of them.  The rest of the country gets it; blue-collar Irish-Catholic Boston guys like to get drunk and they like to fight and we understand the correlation between the two.

Manchester“Manchester by the Sea” is Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature as a director, his first being “You Can Count on Me” (2000), which earned Oscar nominations for Lonergan (Original Screenplay1) and Laura Linney (Best Supporting) but not for the best part, Mark Ruffalo’s performance.  The two films share similar story lines; single parents and a family member who is rarely seen because of some traumatic event who returns home and assumes care of a fatherless nephew.  (I think I just made both movies worse for myself by pointing out those similarities.)

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is the maintenance guy for several small apartment buildings in Quincy, a low-income city near Boston that couldn’t be more detached from the great schools and neighborhoods in that city.  To emphasize the unpleasantness of his job, we see him in the film’s opening unplug a stopped toilet, deal with a bitch of a tenant, and shoveling snow in bitter cold that has no intention of being shoveled.  We eventually find out (we have to work for it because of the non-linear timeline) he’s responsible for the tragic accidental deaths of his young children (one is played by Mikhail Baryshnikov’s daughter Anna) and, as a result, his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) divorces him.  That progression of events leads him to leave his hometown of Manchester to move to Quincy.  When Lee’s older brother Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler) passes away, it’s revealed in the will that Joe wants Lee to take care of his teen son Patrick (Lucas Hedges, who could pass for Matt Damon’s younger brother or his son.)

After his own family’s tragedy and loss of his kids, Lee is understandably resistant to follow through with his late brother’s wishes.  He ultimately assumes the responsibility of taking care of Patrick because there are no other options.  While there’s no emphasis on actually studying for school, Patrick keeps himself busy by being on his school’s hockey team and playing guitar in a garage band, as well as juggling two girlfriends.  He also shares his father’s love of boats and, while it’s not stated directly, wants to take over his father’s charter fishing boat business rather than go to college.  One of Patrick’s girlfriends is less “easy” than the other and the scenes of him awkwardly trying to have sex with her (or talking about doing so) are humorous.  A scene that stood out for me was when a passerby comments when he sees Lee and Patrick arguing on the street, which struck me as especially authentic.

The story’s most animated character is Patrick’s unstable mom Elise (Gretchen Mol).  Elise is in very few scenes and is so different than the rest of the people in the film she could have been Photoshopped into the movie.  She has no accent, she comes across as educated and well-scrubbed, and she dresses better than the rest of the characters.  Elise is a recovering alcoholic who is divorced from Patrick’s father but we don’t know which came first or how she kicked her alcoholism.  I guess the answer to the latter is in her choice of fiancé, devout Christian Jeffrey (Matthew Broderick), who we are introduced to when Elise and Jeffrey have Patrick over for a very strained dinner.

Casey Affleck is like cilantro for me; I can’t figure out if I like him or not.  His high-pitched delivery is anemic, I’ve never seen him show much emotional range, and it’s easy to say he’s riding on Ben’s and Matt’s coat tails.  On the other hand, all his performances, while understated, are good and he’s likable as a screen presence.  His Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Andrew Dominik’s 2007 “The Assassination of Jesse James at the Hands of the Coward Robert Ford” was well deserved.  While it’s understandable that someone who had been through Lee’s tragedies would feel beaten down, I started to count “one thousand-one, one thousand-two, . .” whenever Affleck was going to deliver one of his lines because the long pauses became predictable.  Often, he wouldn’t respond at all.  I found the writing and character stronger than the performance (watch him win the Best Actor Oscar now).  To his credit, he doesn’t overdo the Boston accent and it’s subtle if detectable.  Williams is always outstanding and this film is no exception.  She gets surprisingly little screen time but makes every second count and, in an emotionally heavy story, has the film’s most powerful scenes.  Mol’s nervous-breakdown-about-to-happen portrayal of Elise makes you anticipate her appearance then wish it away when she IS onscreen, and I mean that in a good way.  Hedges is basically a second lead character and is true from beginning to end, seemingly without effort.  He also gets to be the film’s much-needed comic relief, although there’s no difference in his delivery between the serious lines and funny lines.

When you watch the commercials, the image that is presented most strongly is from the water looking at the houses on land.  Usually, when I watch a movie with pleasant visuals that are a break from the story, I enjoy them.  In the case of “Manchester”, I couldn’t figure out if there was a significance to what we were looking at and I recognized them as a film making device, which made them distracting.

I left the theater disappointed, figuring I needed more time to digest the film.  A day has passed and my opinion hasn’t changed.   Even before the film approached the end of its 137-minute running time, I was squirming in my seat, which was more about the uncomfortable scenes and intense and tragic story line than the quality of the film making and story telling.

If I hadn’t seen “You Can Count on Me” and if I didn’t have my fill of similar Boston-set movies and stereotype Boston characters and accents, I would have appreciated “Manchester by the Sea” much more.

DPW

December 9, 2016

1 Along with Jay Cocks and Steve Zaillian, Lonergan also received an Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for Martin Scorsese’s 2002 “Gangs of New York”, a truly unlikeable movie despite the outstanding cast (Brendan Gleeson, Liam Neeson, Jim Broadbent and a typically brilliant Daniel Day-Lewis, even Cameron Diaz was great being cast against type) and high-quality movie making.  Miramax produced and distributed the film and I was given a copy of the script a year before its release.  When I gave it back to my boss, I told him I didn’t get past the first 30 pages because it played on the Irish stereotypes of drinking and fighting too much, which is how I perceived the film.  I found a lot of the violence gratuitous, accurate or not.  Ironically, I have a copy of the original 4-hour cut before most of the post production and any of the music score was done.

I’m wondering if my disgust with this presidential election swayed my opinion of “Manchester by the Sea”, as I felt I was watching the same demographic who were the audience for Donald Trump’s “messages.”  Also, I’ve had a negative impression of Boston ever since a Chinese-American buddy from San Francisco told me about an experience he had in Boston in the 1980′s.

My friend is an educated (Stanford MBA), smart, cool guy and was out with some friends (all white) in Boston when they decided to go to an Italian restaurant.  While they were sitting down at their table, the group noticed a guy wearing an apron — who they took to be the owner — standing near the back of the restaurant, scowling at their table and making sure they saw him scowling, before going back into the kitchen.  A young female waitress came out, approached the table and said to the group, “We’ll serve the rest of you, but we won’t serve HIM”, referring to my Chinese-American buddy.  His friends were so incensed they wanted to go in back and give the owner a beating when my buddy calmed them down and just said they’d eat somewhere else.  He shared that anecdote because I was talking about wanting to visit Boston.  He prefaced the anecdote by saying, “The east coast is much more racist than out here (CA).”   His story was a cautionary tale that obviously stuck with me.  I’ve lived in and near NYC since 2003 (minus the two hellish years I spent in KC) and I can’t say it’s any better now than it was back then.

Added February 6, 2017:

In case you weren’t familiar with this story, Mark Wahlberg, as a teen and without provocation, attacked an Asian man.  I read articles saying the guy was blinded in one eye and others that say he wasn’t, but it’s beside the point.  I doubt Wahlberg would have apologized if he wasn’t a celebrity and he’s probably still a hero to a lot of bigots in that city for doing it.  And this is a Boston favorite son.

http://www.mediaite.com/entertainment/mark-wahlberg-regrets-asking-to-be-pardoned-for-his-1988-assault-of-a-vietnamese-man/

About Dan Walker

As part of an Air Force family, I went to elementary school in Great Falls, MT, junior high in Cheyenne, WY and high school and college in the San Francisco Bay Area, graduating from San Francisco State University with a degree in business. I was fortunate to have worked for great companies in Silicon Valley (Oracle Corp) and Hollywood (Miramax Films). I also lived and worked (primarily in financial services, which has no great companies) for eight years in Manhattan, New York City. I now reside in New York's beautiful Hudson Valley.

4 comments on ““Manchester by the Sea” Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

  1. Jeremy Walker on said:

    Great review Dan, thanks!

  2. Thank You for your thoughtful review. I have to agree that it sounds like I have seen this film in other films about blue collar guys from Boston. I would have preferred to see a movie made about the working class in the actual city of Manchester, England – something I am not familiar with already.

    • I thought the same thing, especially because the title has such a romantic foreign vibe to it. I even looked up the English city on the internet after I got home from watching the movie. It made me wish the film WAS set in that city. The title seems misleading until you realize England’s Manchester is landlocked, which I didn’t know until I looked it up. The only things I know about Manchester are its soccer team and Daphne from Frasier.

      I don’t want to turn you off a movie you may well like. I’d recommend talking to people you know who have seen “Manchester by the Sea” and who have tastes that coincide with yours, especially with all the superlative adjectives being thrown around to describe the movie. Thanks for commenting, John.

    • Sam Jackson feels the same way about this movie that I do and for the same reasons.

      “The movies they choose to say are amazing and great, you know—‘Manchester by the Sea,’ oh my God, you must see it, it’s an amazing film!’ But, ehh, I guess it is — to somebody. It’s not an inclusive film, you know what I mean?”

      Here’s the article:
      http://nypost.com/2016/12/12/samuel-l-jackson-explains-the-problem-with-oscar-bait/

      Jackson is a smart, knowledgeable and highly respected actor. This can’t make the people associated with this movie feel good but it’s the reality check people need to keep things in perspective. I’m so relieved someone whose opinion I respect shares my view. I was really starting to wonder.

      I recently had a conversation with a Boston Irish-Catholic buddy about how many TV series about Boston Irish-Catholic families come and go on TV and, again, how many movies use that setting. I think it’s great people there think it’s wonderful and special to be Boston Irish-Catholic but, outside that demographic, it doesn’t translate as well to the rest of us as they’d like to think. We got it the first time and the second time and the third . . .

      Now I can say it: “Manchester by the Sea” is nothing special, I can’t recommend it in good faith, and I never need to see it again.

      And I hate the Patriots, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

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