Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Town (2010)

Serious White People

directed by Ben Affleck
starring Ben Affleck, Jon Hamm, Rebecca Hall,
Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively, Chris Cooper

Hollywood, that hallowed caterer to the cultural needs of the moment, is open for business. Please bring your prescriptions forward. Is your America mired in the post-Vietnam doldrums — wishing we'd kicked a little more ass, itching for a sense of closure? A tablespoon of Rambo before bed oughta do the trick. Has your America undergone a crisis of confidence, or experienced feelings of diminished potency in the years since 9/11? Just one episode of 24, taken thirty minutes to an hour before sexual activity, and it's the Glorious Eighties all over again.

And what to make of the insta-popularity accorded films like The Departed, Mystic River, The Boondock Saints, and now The Town? Why this sudden deluge of Shamrock Guidos acting tough on the mean streets of Baahston — celluloid sons of Whitey Bulger and Mickey Featherstone who enact provincial rites of manly violence and throw the stink-eye at anybody Not From The Neighborhood?

It's simple: in contrast to their dusky contemporaries, today's middle-class white males have largely declined into a tribe of self-made eunuchs — their flag a white handkerchief, an earnestly warbled emo rendition of "Guilty of Being White" their national anthem. Angst-ridden shells, our modern sons of Europe; so ashamed at their inheritance of a privileged past that their very body language around the Swarthy Ones now spells apology — an averting of the gaze, an involuntary nod-of-the-head in deference. Hey, bro, pleads Chip's transparent stabs at forced social interaction. I'm down. I still know all the words to "Gin and Juice." I'm one of the good ones.

Why, yesterday's white man was nothing less than the flag-waving Christ of Western civilization — our gallant, pink-cheeked warrior who, in the steel-cage tournament for world domination, bodyslammed all five hundred pounds of Japan, made Mother Russia submit to his figure-four leglock, and put Germany down for the count with an elbow off the top turnbuckle. Now, he can't even wear the pants in the family on a shitty sitcom. Now, his only ticket to racial redemption is falling in love with Halle Berry or taking dance lessons from Will Smith. Now, he's little more than the vampire in the mirror of twenty-first century pop culture — with the once-resonant boom of his decades of musical sophistication and cinematic innovations reduced to a mere fart in a multicultural windstorm. And what does he do about it, this modern white male of ours? While misogynistic black boys who preach the Gospel According to Snoop and can barely keep their own pants up are propped up by a zeitgeist that exalts willful ignorance and a twelfth-grader's idea of masculinity — what does he do about it? Jokers unable to compete in a society that prizes more than dick size suddenly become the aces of the deck as the Great American Value System stoops to mimic that of the ghetto — and what does Whitey do about it?

Well, Dear Reader, I'll tell you what he does about it: he buries his head in the sands of ironic detachment and post-feminist shoegazing; so terrified of "objectifying" the opposite sex, he can barely bring himself to approach a woman despite the half-an-evening she's clearly spent adjusting her cleavage for maximum jiggle. Girls who diddled themselves to Brad Pitt's abs in Fight Club now bestow their HPV and daddy issues on Ol' Dirty Bastard lookalikes and tell themselves they're "too curvy" for white guys. Meanwhile, said white guys are too busy standing in a hipster circle-jerk over glasses of Sam Adams, pretending to relate to drug-dealer slang in Wu-Tang lyrics, or arguing on message boards about why Omar was the coolest character on The Wire. After all, to deny such things — to be seen as having refused a seat on the Benetton bandwagon — is to be branded with a scarlet "R" and marched like the Son of Sam through the Obama-stickered town square of our modern Age of Enlightenment. And that — if one desires social acceptance, if one wishes to earn one's diversity-compliance gold star for the sake of professional viability — is The Fate Worse Than Death.

But, hey, there's always the movies. Where else can a slice of Wonder bread like Ben Affleck be a take-no-shit, bank-robbin' son-of-a-gun who, beneath all the Guinness-guzzling and everybody-stay-calm-and-no-one-gets-hurt, is sensitive enough to be the emotional savior of a woman traumatized by his handiwork? Where else can hot blonde baby-mommas be woman enough to ride stick-up boys on couches, ghetto enough to scrap with Somalians, and damn quick to refute the assumption that Serious White People all went the way of the dodo bird? Where else can yuppie white manhood get its own psycho knight in shining Notre Dame armor — a buzz-cut Ice Cube straight outta Charlestown (Jeremy Renner, best thing in the film) who wears his unyielding gangsta ethos like a comfy sweater and is willing to die in it?

Don't misunderstand me: I don't have a problem with Ben Affleck. Except for The Town, he tends to keep his mitts off the kinds of roles better left to the Edward Nortons and Ryan Goslings of the world. My impression of him is that of a guy with neither illusions about himself as an heir to Brando nor problems with that cozy seat he's been occupying on Middle of the Road Ave. since Armageddon. And behind the camera, Benny Boy is as far from hackwork as he is from genius; his first flick Gone Baby Gone, with its measured pacing and novelist's sense of emphasizing just the right detail for a given scene, was a crisp snapshot of the ethnic enclave as state of mind — compelling stuff. Brother Casey (the real actor of the family, as Ben will tell you) contributed a lived-in lead performance as far from magazine-cover flashiness as the old neighborhood is from Hollywood. Ben stayed behind the camera. What it all added up to was the kind of debut that critics tend to file under "Impressive" with a note at the bottom: "let's see what he does next."

Of course, as with all films about young males doing the cock-of-the-walk through a criminal underclass defined by shared ancestry, the template here is Scorsese's Mean Streets. Old crime boss (Pete Postlethwaite) who's lorded it over their twelve-block radius since time began and pulls the strings that make our hapless protagonist dance? Check. Characters mentally imprisoned by their ethnic tribalism? Check. A way of life so etched in stone that the very idea of branching out and starting over is as strange — and threatening — as Tommy the barkeep suddenly sprouting antlers and gibbering in Sanskrit? Absa-fuckin'-lutely. Renner's Jem, the hair-trigger childhood friend turned career-thief-and-loving-it, is obviously the loose-cannon De Niro role. And that leaves Affleck to give us his conflicted good-guy-at-heart Harvey Keitel.

Which is the problem: Rafe-fucking-McCawley from Pearl-fucking-Harbor is not the guy to take the bones of a hard-bitten career thief and put real meat on 'em. What he does is take the usual studio-movie compromises and turn his Bad White Boy into a fucking middle-class college kid: yes, he robs banks but he's never actually killed or hurt anyone! in fact, he's really a tender soul underneath it all! he works with kids and cares about the renovation of a neighborhood ice rink! oh, and also he's still nursing wounds from a dad in prison and a mother who disappeared when he was just a wee lad! See, guys? Innat better? Ben Affleck is not an actor — he's a movie star. Movie stars busy themselves thinking of response cards at preview screenings and Entertainment Weekly spreads and appearances on Oprah and Jay Leno — and you can read it on the brows of their onscreen personas. Submitting to the iron will of a director means that you cede control of your image, that you're molded and — if the film is worth a damn — nudged into shadowy areas of your psyche, pushed to the very limits of your talent. Give a star double duty in the director's chair, though, and watch him render every stripe of drug dealer, hit man, and delusional psychotic as an energy-conserving, balanced-diet-eating, all-American Guy Next Door and understudy for Jesus.

Ben Affleck the Actor/Director is so hellbent on making his Doug MacRay a secret Cub Scout that — fwip! — out the window go both logic (how is it that the Feds know who his guys are and yet fail to have them under surveillance?) and plausibility (the whole relationship-of-storytelling-convenience with Rebecca Hall). His big chase through the streets following an armored-car robbery elicits the snap-crackle-'n-pop of a '70s policier, until you realize that no '70s film was dumb enough to have half a police force chasing a bunch of guys in nun outfits through the narrow streets of a town square and then hinge their escape on the happenstance of a lone cop who — literally — chooses to look the other way. Hell, Affleck doesn't even sell us on how an average faackin' guy like Doug would even be capable of such a death-courting, antisocial choice of career. Or how his best buddies all turned out to be sociopaths committed to the necessity of gunning down grandmas for a handful of hundreds while he's off mentoring wayward youth. Perhaps I missed it, in all that crackerjack Dolby-surround-sound excitement in the theater, but what do they do with their ill-gotten loot — do they have some sort of joint criminals' account in a.... a bank? Do they just stuff it all inside a giant shamrock-shaped mattress that they keep in a treehouse? Wouldn't the authorities be alerted to large sums deposited into local banking accounts just weeks — or even months — after yet another bank got knocked over by the guys that even the Feds know are—

Ah, does it really matter? Jeremy Renner's up there on that screen and he don't take no shit. Blake Lively's up there and you can tell the world — including your goddamn fuckin' African immigrants — that Homegirl don't take no shit. Even Jon Hamm — yeah, he's the main Fed after our boy Ben — but he's a Fed who don't take no shit.

White males exist in such clenched-sphincter paralysis now that seeing a movie like The Town is like finding a deserted outhouse in the middle of nowhere and finally letting it all out — the sulfur-bomb stench, the fourth-of-July fireworks, the groans of relief. You've been on a first date with American society for the last twenty-odd years and, all that time, you've had to go potty. Bad. But you've been holding it in because you wanted to be polite. Because changes in society and the mores of our time demand it. Certainly, you didn't want to be crass and boorish like your oppressive ancestors — after all, that whole slavery deal was a bit of a drag. Not to mention, the stuff with the Indians. So you've been sitting there, knotted guts gurgling since the end of the Reagan era — unable to get so much as a toothpick up your ass, it's been clenched so tight.

And finally — rat-a-tat-tat goes Jeremy Renner's machine gun — you say "fuck it." Finally — pop-pop-pop goes Benny Boy as he shows muthafuckas he's the Wrong Mick Ta Fuck Wit — you say, "I'm tired of holding it in. I'm tired of making my stomach hurt for everybody else in America." Finally — whack! go pipes against bone as Ben 'n Jeremy stride boldly into the projects and show a couple of Latino punks what happens when you fuck with white yuppie broads — you stand up, fist raised to the heavens, and you shout out, "This is my shit, America. And, yes, it fucking stinks. But at least it's outta my system."

And then, the movie's over.

©2011 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic
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Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License .