Scribbler’s Saga #12 – Manchester-by-the-Sea

Posted: January 2, 2017 in Uncategorized

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

Have you ever blundered into something that everybody else seems to love, but you can’t stand? For me, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester-by-the-Sea is that movie. Luckily, I have no idea where Rotten Tomatoes is headquartered or I might buy a little extra trouble this year mailing the review aggregator site a lunch bag full of flaming dog crap over this one. Okay, in an effort to just use my words, I will breathe it down, merely light up a literary flamethrower and pretend I torched up said steaming pile going to town as the one voice in the wilderness that didn’t have an Oscar-bait moving experience.

The log line: the sudden death of a beloved older brother brings a Boston area handyman home to the seaside village of Manchester, Massachusetts in order to confront the tragic demons of his past while making arrangements for his nephew’s last two years of legal childhood.

I found at least three related things wrong with this movie that begin and end with it felt like a long ass movie. I spent a lot of time fidgeting in my seat, checking my watch that wouldn’t tell me the time because the glow in the dark hands hadn’t been charged up with light and wishing I’d just gone to see Rogue One for the fourth time.

I suppose I could generally bust on the molasses in winter pace of Lee Chandler’s (Casey Affleck) story as he returns home during a seemingly harsh Massachusetts Bay winter unable to bury his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) for several months because the ground in the cemetery froze. Sometimes slow character based movies work and might’ve worked in this case, but for the incessant and regularly spaced flashbacks to reveal why Lee absolutely will never return to Manchester to take up responsibility for the last two years of his nephew’s childhood.

I think there were ten flashback sequences and it took at least eight to reveal Lee’s pain, while meandering through other interesting, but still off-putting aspects of the extended family drama of the Chandlers. However, my tolerance for the flashbacks ended around the sixth trip into the past. And this more than anything else slowed the experience of this movie to a crawl highlighted with an emotional feel akin to claws on chalkboard.

Lastly, in the negative column I can’t tell if Lee Chandler annoyed me as a character, or if Mr. Lonergan simply dropped the ball allowing this character to have a full dramatic arc. Either way Lee Chandler didn’t seem to change very much for going home and this ultimately bored the crap out of me, adding to the misery of yet another flashback. Like with most things, bet on the true answer being both at the same time.

On the character side of things Lee Chandler is a stereotypical resident of an Upper Bay fishing village: hard drinking, hard fighting and an emotionally closed off man’s man who works with his hands. Between the work of Mr. Affleck’s brother, Ben, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg and a few examples of his own movie past, we’ve seen this character before. But, in Manchester-by-the-Sea we finally get to see how boring this character can be when something goes wrong failing to hit story beats that get left on the table.

Now I will defer to the expertise of the actors listed above who all were raised in the area and don’t need a dialect coach to manage the accent, but is everybody who lives there like Lee Chandler? Especially when the audience (or me at least) might feel cheated that he never finds his words relative to his open wound that prevents him from seeing Manchester as home? Or that the character also never really finds his words concerning the many subplots surrounding the core of the movie that get brought up in reaction to the hated flashbacks?

Okay, just what is Lee Chandler’s core wound? Once upon a time after kicking his loud and loaded friends out of the house at the behest of his wife, he makes a fire in the fireplace forgetting the screen. The house burned down killing his three children sleeping upstairs as a result. All of the other information in all of the other previously presented flashbacks immediately seemed like distractions in retrospect, but as I said above I felt annoyed, fidgety and bored by the time I saw what the movie was all about. Too late for me to care. And there were a couple flashbacks after the house burned down.

The device of losing family through tragic carelessness basically means the movie only has two ways out. Lee finds his words related to his loss and realizes that it’s time to come home and be an uncle and guardian. Or Lee admits to his nephew why he can’t come home, that the pain of seeing the old house lot and those faces that still live in Manchester would kill him bit by bit every day. The movie chose the latter, but did so in a mushy indistinct way with dialogue that allows the character to remain emotionally closed off and angry – “I can’t make it.” Which allows me to feel cheated out of a semi-tragic arc where not everything needs to work out by the last reel, but makes me feel.

Now what was good about this movie? Likely the hook upon which everybody else and his brother decides they liked this story? Acting. Acting. Acting. And did I mention acting?

Casey Affleck chews scenery playing up the smoldering fury of his character which goes a long way towards disguising what I see as the structural weaknesses in the character’s arc. Yes, I never felt like I got a full story out of the character but what ended up on screen wouldn’t let me take my eyes away, get up and go to the bathroom, or walk out early to beat traffic. So pretty much there was a good movie somewhere in the exposed footage. The most frustrating kind of annoying movie, the almost experience.

Another acting shout out goes to Lucas Hedges as the nephew, Patrick Chandler. This newcomer expertly plays the foil that should, in another version of this script, either convince his long lost uncle to stay or actually say – “Look, Patrick, what did your dad tell you about why I left? My kids died because I was loaded to the eyeballs and stupid. I can’t look at the harbor. I can’t look at the houses and those fuckin’ Widow’s Walks. I can’t stay and you can’t leave, or at least you shouldn’t just go. Not without a better plan, for which I’m sorry. So what do we do now?”

Patrick also gets to steal the show with his other scenes as an adolescent: his horrible band, his, count ‘em, two girlfriends and expressing how freaky not burying his father is. These funny and touching moments help to liven up this badly structured mess that otherwise had me figuratively clawing out my eyeballs.

If I had to pick a recent (if 1992 counts as recent) Oscar analogy what with the buzz going around that I clearly don’t support, treat this film like Scent of a Woman. Pass out Oscars for Mr. Affleck and/or Mr. Hedges, if you like; just please don’t give it any of the other important statues.

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