Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler
Run Time: 2 hours 17 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
By far the best thing about Manchester by the Sea is Casey Affleck’s SNL monologue describing it: “It’s an incredibly depressing picture. It’s really a downer. I mean, it’s great… It’s a beautiful testament to what we’ll do for our family, to how everyone deserves a second chance, and also to how unbearably sad movies can be. But it’s also great! But sad. And funny! But just, crushingly sad.”
Has there been a movie more obviously teed up for Oscar buzz? I was nervous about sitting down to another film about a deadbeat white dude feeling sorry for himself, but I underestimated Manchester by the Sea by about the same degree pretty much everybody in the world massively overestimated it.
Got some Oscarbait on your hands? Come on down to Popcorn Culture and we’ll trash it for ya, free of charge.
In Manchester by the Sea, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a deadbeat Bostonian working as a handyman. When his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies, he must move back to the seaside town of Manchester to make the funeral arrangements and see if he’s prepared to be a guardian for his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Being in town forces him to confront his past, especially his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams). Can he overcome his drunken depression and find it in his heart to take care of a teen in need?
We’ll just have to see, but the odds are against him. This IS an Oscar frontrunner after all.
Manchester by the Sea is not a fun movie, as if I needed to tell you that. But it’s also not fun in the way that giving yourself over to a harrowing movie can be cathartic. Despite its reputation for ravaging melodrama, Manchester by the Sea is a rather intimate and small portrait of a character who’s closed off from the world. And watching someone who’s dead inside going through the motions is dull, far removed from the sharp, searing pain of most cinematic tragedies. While many fans felt that the dullness is applied with such pressure it creates a kind of blunt force trauma, I slipped off the slick surface of this one, finding it hard to get a foothold in any remotely engaging character element.
That doesn’t mean you won’t like it. By all accounts, most film viewers differ from Yours Truly (if they didn’t, The Boy Next Door would’ve had a much higher box office take), But for this reviewer, the emotional core of Manchester was too distant to feel any true connection.
Fortunately, that almost doesn’t matter, because what people don’t tell you is that the film is also quite funny. Manchester by the Sea has a similar sense of humor to The Fighter, chucking a handful of aggressive Bostonians into a room together and seeing what sparks fly. Hedges and Affleck have a prickly yet easy chemistry that feels as lived-in as if they’re genuine relatives, but strained by their circumstances and clashing personalities.
Probably like when Ben comes over for dinner.
And yeah sure, there are plenty of Oscar reel showcase moments. Michelle Williams gives a hauntingly broken performance is what is more like a glorified cameo, Hedges shines with his brassy rebellion until a standout breakdown scene of his own, and Gretchen Mol shines in a brief appearance, cementing in the film’s themes of guilt and addiction. Affleck doesn’t really stand out from the pack because his character is purposefully underplayed, but he is the glue that holds the film together nevertheless.
Manchester by the Sea has a lot of strengths, but a strong hook is not one of them. It’s not quite misery porn, not quite comedy, and not quite realism. And it’s certainly not quite great. It has its share of small, memorable moments crafted through subtle physical performances and dialogue, but other times it drowns out its own characters with endlessly repetitive driving scenes and a swooning score, bizarre tangents that make it clock in at two and a half hours long, and a certain lack of grace in the bigger dramatic moments (including a bar fight that elicits a gasp from a crowd of apparently invisible women at a pub filled with men – the sound designer must have had a hot date that night, because that rushed slip-up is punishing.)
Sure, I liked Manchester by the Sea. Its run time flew by and the humor was engaging. But the drama elements are so quiet they’re nearly inaudible. If you respond to movies about loss and broken people, by all means go see it. But otherwise, unless you’re like me and aiming to see all the Best Picture nominees, you could much better spend that time somewhere else.
TL;DR: Manchester by the Sea is overpraised, but it's an engaging, strangely funny, intimate tale of loss and addiction.
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