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Manchester by the Sea Sinks Under its Own Self-Importance

Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea is a frustrating movie. Frustrating because Lonergan so acutely portrays how people talk while somehow having no clue how people behave. A more dour mixed up bore you will not find in theaters.

Lonergan is not an untalented man nor is his ear for how we talk out of tune. Manchester By The Sea should be a simple movie about grief but is instead a melodramatic tale about a handyman who committed a heinous and unfortunate act that he cannot forgive himself for. When I say it is melodramatic, I do not mean it is a movie filled with people shouting or delivering long-winded soliloquies. Far from it. These are terse, mild-mannered working class people who get drunk and fight.

The movie starts out right enough with Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) going about his daily routine. We follow him as he goes from tenant to tenant fixing what’s broken and providing counsel on what should be the next step. I liked how Lonergan allowed us to eavesdrop on the tenants as Lee busies himself with the job at hand. The way he allows Boston to come through not through establishing shots but through the characters and how they talk to each other.

Affleck is a solid actor. He has a likable presence and he’s wonderful with portraying that sort of muted annoyance that quickly boils into outright verbal exasperation. Lonergan allows us to see a day in the life of Lee while also establishing both his character and emotional state. It’s all so good you’re not even wondering when the movie will get going.

Then Lee gets a phone call. His brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is in the hospital up in Manchester. Lee drops everything, makes arrangements for his shift to be covered, and rushes to his brother’s side. I appreciated seeing Lee on the phone and trying to make sure everything was covered as he drove to the hospital. So often in movies we are led to believe things magically take care of themselves.

It’s refreshing to see a character actually have to manage the world around him, and deal with traffic, and try and stop in time for the light. Lonergan does a wonderful job showing the world as it is. He never rushes the movie or is at all in a mad dash in getting us to where we need to be. This is good because we are not anxious. It’s nice to be left alone by a movie. To be allowed to just sit and observe and to see the things we ourselves do day in and out be dramatized on the big screen. How refreshing it is to see someone use a blinker.

When Lee arrives at the hospital he is told he is too late. Joe has died. Once again Lonergan mutes the emotion. It’s a small scene filled with small gestures and smaller words. It’s a lovely little moment of people grieving over a lost loved one. It also does a neat little job of verbal exposition about the Chandler family dynamics.

The movie up to this point, save from the opening credits, has taken place in the present. It’s here where Lonergan starts to intercut scenes from the past into the story. There’s no visual or musical cue to tell you that these are not scenes in the present. The movie allows you to figure it out for yourself.

We learn Joe has a wife, and we know from the opening scene that he has a son. We also learn that Lee has an ex-wife. Though we do not yet know where either wife has gone at this point. What we do learn is that it is up to Lee to tell Joe’s son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) his father has died.

So far so good. It’s a wonderfully quiet movie of observation of grief. The scenes between Lee and Patrick are like all the others up to this point. They are poignant and emotionally honest. Then we get to the lawyer’s office and the whole thing starts to wobble.

We come to find out that Joe has left Patrick’s guardianship to Lee. Lee is understandably taken aback seeing as how Joe has never discussed this with him. Lee is puzzled as to why Joe would do this. The lawyer seems puzzled as well. Joe has gone through great pains and detail; setting up expense accounts, providing allowances, etc. all for Lee to take Patrick.

After all the beautiful quiet little moments the movie comes to this. A plot device we would expect from an old Disney movie. I understand things need to happen to further things along in a narrative. But surely the tired old trope of young man suddenly saddled with a kid could have been discarded for something less manufactured.

It’s also at this point where we begin to hear hints of Lee’s past. People are sad for Lee but when they hear about how he is now the guardian of Patrick there is a sense of shock. A sort of “Really? He chose you?” It’s a sentiment we agree with and that’s without showing us Lee’s ‘secret’.

The movie that left us alone then proceeds to become the movie that won’t leave us alone while digging its heels into the ground by showing us the same scenes over and over. Oh sure we get scenes that are fun or heartbreaking because Lonergan gets out of his own way and allows us to just watch people talk and relate.

But then it’s back to the narrative coal mines as we’re forced to sit through ponderous shots of the cemetery as choral voices play. As if to poke us in the ribs, “Are you sad? It’s all really sad isn’t it? Are you sad yet?” I wanted to scream at the screen “Just get on with it!”

You know that old adage about how you should be careful what you wish for? About halfway through the movie Lee’s secret is revealed. His private shame as it were. The reason why he and his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) separated. It’s a moment so forced and so incongruous from the rest of the movie I sat there dumbfounded at what I was watching.

I’ll say nothing except to say we find out through earlier scenes that Lee and Randi had three kids. We find out what happened to them. We also can see this coming seeing as Lee is seemingly always drunk. It’s around here where the movie slips into outright perplexing.

Lonergan has now lost faith in us entirely and begins to just start showing us more shots of cemeteries and blaring more choral voices at us while showing us the Manchester landscape. The movie only becomes more and more frustrating because of the moments of nuanced dialogue and character moments that become increasingly rare.

Affleck and Hedges are fine. They carry what they can. When they are in the first half of the movie they are fleshed out characters. Their action and words rooted in reality. But once Manchester By The Sea stumbles into the second half, this wailing beast of “Everything is SAD! SO SAD!”, the facade crumbles.

Lee and Patrick cease to be people we wish to spend time with and instead become agonizing idiotic children we dread having to be with for another minute. Our only real respite is the always reliable Kyle Chandler as Joe. When the movie switches to the past and we see Chandler we are relieved.

Kyle Chandler infuses the movie with one of it’s rare moments of quiet joy. He’s too good. We realize too late that Joe is who the movie should be about and not Lee. Chandler has a way of handling himself and his dialogue that never feels like acting. He has the rare quality amongst actors he always make it sound like his words are from himself and not the script.

It’s in these scenes with Kyle Chandler when the movie again piles another ‘tragedy’ onto us. Joe’s wife Elise (Gretchen Mol) is an addict. There’s even an entire subplot involving a cleaned up Elise and her new fiance Jeffrey (Matthew Broderick). Oh sweet merciful plot contrivance.

The moments in the past are a refuge from the rest of the movie. When Lonergan delves into the past before the TRAGEDY, Manchester is engaging and a delight to listen to. The ominous music and the dreary soapy allusions to Elise’s drug use aside.  But when it comes back to deal with both TRAGEDIES we begin to question the limits of choral music.

The movie drags on and on until it finally sputters to a stop. Perhaps sputter is the wrong word; it implies the movie was moving along at all. I have not even told you about the movie’s biggest crime. Bigger than the convoluted plot device of the first act and even bigger than the overblown tragic reveal of the second act. It’s the criminal butchering of the Michelle Williams performance as Randi.

I blame Lonergan if for no other reason that only a man would have an actor of William’s caliber stand there stuttering monosyllabic forgiveness while she sobs to the point of drowning. She apologizes for words that she has every right to have said. Only a man would have Affleck’s Lee respond with stammering and refusals to talk.

Manchester By The Sea is a bargain with it being three movies in one. Yet, neither of them have Lee being arrested for at the very least negligent manslaughter and getting treatment for his obvious drug abuse problems. This movie is depressing not because of it’s subject matter or because of it’s dour mood. It’s depressing because of Kenneth Lonergan’s obvious talent and his ear for everyday conversation.

You may think I’m just a grouch who hates any kind of heartfelt emotion. To you I’d say, “You’d be too if you had to sit through over two hours of Casey Affleck pouting with his hands in his pockets and be told it was ‘acting’.” I acted all the way home after seeing Manchester By The Sea.


Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

Jeremiah
Written By

Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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