** stars (out of four)
Just like Ben Affleck’s first film as a director (Gone, Baby, Gone), Live by Night is an adaptation of a novel by acclaimed author Dennis Lehane. But the movie does not work as well this time around.
Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, a WWI vet turned bandit in 1920s Boston. He finds himself on the wrong side of a mob boss and ends up in Florida, where he establishes a bootlegging empire. Along the way, he clashes with the KKK, other mobsters, and a charismatic young preacher (Elle Fanning).
Like many book-to-screen translations, you get the sense that some of the novel’s connective tissue has been jettisoned because of time constraints. As a result, the pacing feels choppy. Most critically, the film fails to establish either heat or a genuine emotional connection between Affleck and the two women he loves (Sienna Miller and Zoe Saldana). Those relationships should be the beating heart of the film, but the two female characters are woefully underdeveloped (Miller fares a little better than Saldana).
Parts of the film do come to life. Fanning turns in strong work in a too-brief role. Chris Cooper is terrific as usual as a pragmatic police chief.
Ben Affleck’s a talented director who has made good thrillers for grown-ups (a sadly dwindling genre). Even though Live by Night is his weakest film to date, he’s likely to rebound.