Manchester By The Sea
Nostalgia reigns as the Oscars draw near; from La La Land’s ode to the musical to Kennedy-era fascination with John Glenn’s flight in space (Hidden Figures) to Denzel Washington’s long-awaited film version of August Wilson’s play Fences about black familial tensions in the 1950’s, The Academy seems intent on honoring - - selectively - - a past with which most young Americans are unfamiliar. Does that provide the rationale for the honors already heaped on Manchester by the Sea? It’s a saccharine-laced homage to the mid-20th century “kitchen sink realism” of playwright John Osborne (Look Back in Anger), a fascination with working-class life that migrated from British theater into film and television productions in England that provided background for the blue-collar milieu of such Hollywood films as Marty, Black Board Jungle & On The Waterfront.
Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me) takes 2 hours and 17 minutes of screen time to trace the misfortunes of Lee Chandler, a morose divorced janitor who returns to his roots in Manchester Massachusetts to become the guardian of his 16 yr. old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) when the boy’s father suddenly dies. Lee drinks a lot, talks as little as possible gets animated only when punching out customers in the neighborhood bars he frequents. Handy with his hands but awkward in his social skills, he conducts himself as though the guilt of the world rests squarely on his shoulders. The audience learns (far too slowly) that this bleak outlook comes from a tragic accident for which Lee has decided to hold himself responsible.
Thrust suddenly into the responsibility of parenting a teenager, Lee’s reaction is a curious combination of befuddled acquiesce and dictatorial refusal to the demands of his ward’s active life, which include membership on the high school hockey team, playing lead guitar in an awful garage band, becoming a partner in his father’s commercial fishing boat and sexually entertaining a pair of girl friends who have no knowledge of what they’re sharing. Patrick’s full of life; Lee’s consumed with death - - and for the interminable middle of Manchester, they both miss and collide with each other like participants in a demolition derby. Lonergan finally brings this mannered drama to a suitably inconclusive ending.
The film has garnered 6 Oscar nominations; one for the film itself, a pair for Lonergan (script and direction) as well as a best actor nomination for Affleck, and best supporting actor nods for Hedges and Michelle Williams, who plays Affleck’s former wife. The last two honors can arguably be supported, but what about Affleck’s? He’s a gifted actor with real screen presence and a string of solid performances to his credit, but his near-catatonic performance as Lee stands as one of the most thoroughly irritating of the year. The fault lies squarely on Lonergan’s shoulders but it’s Affleck who must pay the price.
Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes provides lots of travelogue-style shots of the film’s locations in such small Massachusetts towns as Lynn, Essex, Beverly and Rockport, exploiting the movie’s modest budget in a visually pleasing way, but the movie patronizes its audience and won’t be long remembered, despite this week’s Oscar hype.
The Verdict? Ponderous examination of the obvious.
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