Have you ever walked out of a movie feeling lost and grumpy like Grandpa Simpson? It’s just me, isn’t it?
After all the critical fuss over the Oscar-nominated Manchester by the Sea, I expected to walk out of the theater with my heart ripped to pieces and/or some tears shed, as befitting a film about the grieving process. Maybe it’ll hit me years later, like when I saw Ghost for my second time and had a weirdly intense reaction. I put off this entry for a few weeks to allow time for a surprise epiphany to hit me and upend my interpretation. So far, nada.
Short version for the unfamiliar: At first glance, Casey Affleck is a loser working as a maintenance man living and working in a low-rent apartment building in Quincy, MA. His unglamorous life gets put on hold upon the death of his well-to-do big brother (Kyle Chandler), who leaves behind a house an hour away up in the real town of Manchester-by-the-Sea, a sizable amount of money, and a virtually orphaned teenage son named Patrick (Lucas Hedges, last seen as an unpleasant scissors-stabbing victim in Moonrise Kingdom). When instructions in the will insist that uncle and nephew forge ahead as a new family unit, hilarity and awkwardness ensue in varying measures as each tries to cope with the loss in their own way while denying the reality that nothing will ever be the same again.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Four-time Academy Award nominee Michelle Williams is Affleck’s Concerned Ex-Wife who gets one effective speech for your consideration. Gretchen Mol (Boardwalk Empire) is Patrick’s deadbeat mom, largely out of the picture except one flashback (I think? maybe more?) and one attempted comeback. The Matthew Broderick drops in for a few minutes as her second husband, walking beside her on her path to redemption and thankfully not soaking in too many Christian clichés.
TV’s Tate Donovan (Argo) likewise keeps his stay short as Patrick’s hockey coach. Josh Hamilton (Anna Gunn’s husband from Gracepoint) is the attorney with the unpleasant task of reading the will. Stephen McKinley Henderson (Denzel’s pal from Fences) has one scene as Affleck’s pushover of a boss.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Grief sometimes comes to us in odd forms. For some it’s all about the tears and the memories. For Patrick it means trying to go about his everyday life unhindered until the most benign everyday objects hit him the wrong way as reminders and send him into panic attacks. For Affleck it means stoicism disconnecting him from other people and the standard niceties — not because he’s a jerk who didn’t love his brother, but because he’s already lived through so much grief in his recent terrible past that he doesn’t have any tears left in him and can’t bear the thought of making room for more.
Director Kenneth Lonergan perfectly captures the banality of the post-mortem to-do list. Half the movie is Affleck driving and driving and driving here and there and everywhere, shuttling from Quincy to Manchester and back again, making the arrangements and the notifications. There’s a spot of amusing truth in how the average funeral necessitates a ridiculous number of tedious errands.
Manchester captures one other aspect of the process that’s rare in a Hollywood drama: even while you’re in mourning, sometimes things can still be funny among the living. Generally when a character dies on the big screen, the entire world goes black and gray, all signs of levity are banished, and any hint of a smile means either they’re about to have a breakdown or they’re the monster who murdered the deceased. In several scenes sarcasm and absurdity still pop up through the course of the day without ruining the overall tone or distorting into goofy gallows humor.
Nitpicking? While his dad’s dead, Patrick tries moving on by keeping up his indulgences, including would-be teen sexcapades with at least two girlfriends who have no idea he’s a two-timing cad. His uncle, neither a role model nor a leader by his own choice, couldn’t care less and acts as a sluggish, practically quiescent accomplice in one particularly face-palming escapade. Our horny hero suffers exactly zero consequences for his sins apart from his random bouts of instant sadness. I lose interest quickly in movies where happy teen sexcapades are an upfront plot point, and I stopped caring about his feelings when I realized not one person would have the pleasure of punching him in the face outside of hockey practice.
I tend to cry more easily at films than the average guy. If you look back at some of my movie lists of years past, the highest-ranking ones tend to be those that hit me in just the right emotional spot. Manchester never hit that spot for me once. Maybe it’s because everyone’s sorrow is so realistically low-key and distancing that I never actually connected their experiences with my own.
Or maybe it’s because at one point I lost track of a few threads between the present-day scenes and the flashbacks, which require close attention and maybe a playbill to keep the two brothers’ respective former families straight. I confess to you now that their wives were both thin blond women who looked so alike to me that for a while I totally got them mixed up and couldn’t remember which one was which, or was whose wife. Such, alas, is the nature of my flawed people-watching skills, I guess. And when I noticed house dogs barking in one flashback that never showed up in the present, and later tried to parse a scene involving body bags whose contents weren’t straightforwardly disclosed, I inferred it was the poor doggos who had died and thought, “Okay, that s objectively sad, but some of what follows sure seems like an intense overreaction.” (I mean, unless they were really good dogs, Brent.) Too many minutes later, I realized I was wrong and the dogs were a red herring and/or discarded set dressing, but then had to waste time and brain power backtracking and trying to figure out who did die in the flashback. Meanwhile on screen, lamenting characters kept on lamenting without me.
It’s hard for a movie to make you feel sad when you’re too busy concentrating on straightening out your scorecard.
So what’s to like? I procrastinated this entry for weeks because it deserved somewhat better than “Old Man Yells at New Englanders”. Granted, that’s assuming we set aside past instances of Affleck misbehavior that spawned multiple thinkpieces in recent months. (Here, have a random sample.) If enough viewers don’t set it aside, “Old Man” might become more like “Class-Action Audience”. I saw this using a free pass someone else gave me, so to a limited extent my conscience is slightly less blemished either way. (Slightly.)
Amid the washed-out colors of blue-collar life on the Massachusetts coast, Lonergan achieves a naturalistic complexity Hollywood doesn’t care to aim for in its tear-jerking, three-hanky tragedies. Some of it involves characters who never see the reckoning they deserve, which frustrates the old-fashioned moralist in me, but sometimes that’s how life in this broken world goes. For what it’s worth, Affleck’s deceptively inert performance is refreshing if only for avoiding the pitfalls of garment-rending, fist-shaking, fate-cursing melodrama. Manchester may have kept me at arm’s length, but I appreciate some of the unconventional choices that set it apart.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Manchester by the Sea end credits, but the enormous “Special Thanks” section gives an interesting idea of how big a village it took to raise this film. Among those who helped or inspired in some way include numerous Massachussetts organizations and corporations, several towns in the area, famous sibling Summer Phoenix, and Academy Award Winner Jim Rash, among dozens of others.