If Ben Affleck was a cat, and a Hollywood career was a stand-in for lives (just stay with us on this one, we’re going somewhere, we promise), we figure he’d be up to his fourth life. Perhaps even five! We’re talking, of course, about the release this weekend of Affleck’s The Town, a movie he not only stars in but co-wrote and directed, which has critics going sort of gaga for Affleck all over again, partying like it’s 1997.
It was in 1997, of course, that Good Will Hunting came out of nowhere, ushering in the era of Matt and Ben, culminating in a couple of matching Oscars (and goofy grins) for its screenplay. People knew of these guys before then…sorta. Affleck may have been the more visible thanks to his turns in Dazed and Confused and Chasing Amy, but after the Good Will Hunting moment the two started to drift into different paths. Damon to a serious actor path — working with Francis Ford Copoola, Robert Redford, Steven Spielberg, and remember how good he was in The Talented Mr. Ripley?, not to mention the Bourne and Oceans franchises. Affleck, on the other hand, seemed to drift more toward matinee idol fare — fitting for his naturally heroic jawline — with Pearl Harbor, Armageddon, Reindeer Games. He started dating famous ladies, first Gwyneth and then there was that regrettable “Bennifer” period with JLo. People speculated (unfairly it seems now) that it must have been Damon behind the Good Will Hunting success. And then, you know, there was Gigli and Jersey Girl. Yeow.
But perhaps in one of the more delightful Hollywood reinventions, Affleck turned his ship around. He started choosing better projects, less showy parts like Hollywood Land and State of Play. And most importantly, in 2007, he directed Gone Baby Gone, a well-executed turn that garnered an Oscar nomination for Amy Ryan and raves for his brother, Casey. Was this too a fluke, the world wondered? Just another case of an actor ducking behind the camera? (As Anthony Lane wrote this week in The New Yorker, “The need to migrate behind the camera has never died, and no leading male has been immune — Bambi, perhaps, although rumors persist of stag footage locked away in the Disney vaults”.)
With The Town, Affleck has stopped “Ben Affleck, director” from being a joke. It’s a supremely enjoyable and well-crafted heist film, set in Affleck’s beloved hometown of Boston. If there’s one thing Affleck clearly has a knack for, it’s casting (just like other actor/director hybrids like Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford): the great Jeremy Renner — is this guy the hottest thing going these days in Hollywood or what? — is just right as the empty-eyed perhaps sociopathic friend and armed-robber partner, Jon Hamm manages to make us forget about Don Draper for two hours as the FBI agent circling around the hunted criminals, and Rebecca Hall is perfectly lovely and damaged in just the right amounts. Oh, and Chris Cooper playing Affleck’s character’s father? Amazing. (“Getting Chris Cooper to play your old man, for instance, is a risky move, and Cooper, granted a single scene, walks off with it in his pocket,” wrote Lane. Very true.) And Affleck himself does the wisest thing possible; he allows himself to blend in and have his supporting actors shine all around him, turning in a subtle and layered performance. The real question will be what life will be the next one.