PLOT During Prohibition, an independent gangster reluctantly joins the mob.
CAST Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Messina
RATED R (strong violence, language, sexuality)
PLAYING AT Opens Sunday at Union Square Stadium 14 and Lincoln Square 13 in Manhattan. Opens locally Jan. 13.
BOTTOM LINE Nice-looking period details can’t make up for a muddled story whose hero seems worse than the villains.
Ben Affleck’s new Prohibition-era drama, “Live by Night,” aims to be all things to all people. It wants to be a glossy period piece, a brutally violent crime film and a sprawling saga. It wants to be tough and cynical but also emotionally wrenching. Most of all, it wants to rub our faces in the dirt of human nature while exempting its hero from blame. You can’t have it both ways, though — let alone several dozen ways.
Affleck, who directed and wrote “Live by Night” from Dennis Lehane’s novel (as he did with 2007’s “Gone Baby Gone”), plays Joe Coughlin, the crooked son of a Boston cop. The Italian and Irish mobs are battling for bootlegging supremacy, but Joe won’t join any gang. Serving in the Great War made him bitter, he says, and he doesn’t like “kissing rings.” Joe, we sense, has a personal code.
Joe’s code allows him to sleep with another man’s floozy, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller, adding a little vinegar to an otherwise flavorless role). Unfortunately, the other man is the vicious Irish kingpin Albert White (Robert Glenister). The illicit romance ends badly, and so does Emma. Now, thirsting to get even with Albert, Joe joins the Italians, led by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone).
So much for that code! Joe builds himself a nice life as the regional crime boss of Tampa, Florida, along with his loyal friend Dion (Chris Messina, in a likable turn). Joe holds power through blackmail and murder, although we’re supposed to admire him for standing up to the KKK. (Joe has crossed a racial line by falling for Graciella, a Cuban criminal played by Zoe Saldana.) By the time Joe returns to his plan for vengeance — remember that? — he’s wrecked so many lives that we’ve stopped caring.
Affleck, usually a sure-footed director (2012’s Oscar-winning “Argo”), seems tripped up by Lehane’s meandering and morally muddled story. “Live by Night” is a mess, partly because it’s overstuffed with subplots and partly because Joe is such a weak and despicable character. The movie looks quite nice, thanks to Affleck, and that’s about the most you can say for its hero, too.