Saturday, February 7, 2009

The career makeover of Ben Affleck

There are a number of things that interest me about He's Just Not That Into You, which hits theaters today, in plenty of time to rack up word of mouth before you have to make your Valentine's Day plans next weekend.

1) Now that it's being released, does this mean I can finally stop seeing trailers for it? I swear, I've seen the theatrical trailer for this film about six times. And I'm not even going to movies that would be logical candidates to get the trailer, on the basis of their subject matter. So yeah, they were really saturating the marketplace with this one.

2) Speaking of ads for He's Just Not That Into You, I've broken my own tradition and included two posters for the same film with my posting. I've included the one with the nine (!) heads on it as part of some points I'll make later on, but I also wanted to include the one with the candy heart on it, because I thought it was a clever approach. Those candy hearts have always had the absurd role of making Valentine's-related prognostications, almost as though they were miniature heart-shaped magic 8 balls, so squeezing the self-help title of this movie onto one of them was a smart reference to our collective consciousness. (It's also a cheeky acknowledgement that films like this have no greater raison d'etre than to take a grab at your Valentine's Day disposable income). So I wondered: Could it bode well for the film in general?

3) Speaking of those nine heads, is this movie going to explode from diva overload? I remember the first time I saw the trailer, I thought, "Okay, it's a Jennifer Aniston movie ... wait, it's a Drew Barrymore movie ... wait, it's a Scarlett Johansson movie!" This is to say nothing of Jennifer Connelly, and I understand Ginnifer Goodwin is actually the "you" of the title. I'm not suggesting that any of these actresses has a really large ego or is difficult to work with on set, but I do think each of them (excepting Ms. Goodwin) is accustomed to carrying her own movie. How director Ken Kwapis is going to dole out enough screen time for them all is anybody's guess.

4) And speaking of massive egos ... have you noticed that Ben Affleck is a supporting character in this movie? Equivalent in stature to Bradley Cooper, Justin Long and Kevin Connolly, who have all made careers of supporting bigger names? This is what I really want to talk about, as you probably noticed from the title of this post.

It's tempting to say "Ha -- look how far Ben Affleck has fallen. He's almost an afterthought in an ensemble romantic comedy." It's especially tempting because everyone has gone through at least one phase of hating Ben Affleck. (Even those of us from Boston, who share his rooting interest in sports. If we never again saw his face in the front row of another Red Sox game, seeming to speak for all Boston sports fans, it would be too soon. Thankfully, Stephen King has basically taken that role from him in recent years).

And truly, Ben Affleck has deserved our hatred. After Good Will Hunting shot him and Matt Damon instantly into the stratosphere, Affleck's trajectory was initially far more promising. But while Damon made smart and often understated choices, Affleck went for as much fame as he could, even if it meant starring in Michael Bay schlock (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor) and ill-advised pairings with ill-advised girlfriend Jennifer Lopez (Jersey Girl, Gigli). What's worse, he didn't really seem to appreciate his fame -- he seemed to carry himself as though he deserved it, and he couldn't have imagined any different outcome for his life. Let's just say that when the market corrected itself, and Damon started getting recognized for his relative humility and intelligence, while Affleck began crashing and burning, legions of film fans cheered the scales of justice finally tipping the right way.

And then Affleck disappeared. Poof.

Did you notice? Did you happen to notice that in the last four years or so, Ben Affleck has been basically invisible? Except he hasn't really disappeared. He's been shrewdly remaking his image as a person who thinks about his choices, both in Hollywood, and in his personal life. In fact, you might say that his relationship with Jennifer Garner -- whom everybody has always liked, and whom Affleck didn't seem to deserve -- was the moment when the flip switched for Affleck. Right at the moment that most stars in his position would try even harder, would go even further down the wrong path, and would thereby reinforce all our negative impressions of them, likely resulting in total calamity and cinematic irrelevance, Affleck started to turn it around -- out of the spotlight and totally on the DL.

If you want to choose a rock bottom moment for Mr. Affleck, there seems no better choice than the disastrous Christmas movie Surviving Christmas, which had the singular indignity of being released on DVD in the same Christmas season in which it was released in the theater. How is that possible? It came out on October 22nd, that's how. Not only is that a totally obnoxious interpretation of the beginning of the Christmas movie season, but it also meant the thing was gone and forgotten by Veterans Day. Desperate to recoup any little bit of their investment in the film, the studio released it on DVD exactly two months later. I wouldn't swear to it, but that has got to be a first.

While movies like Gigli and Pearl Harbor seem like a much more symbolic indication of Affleck's downward spiral, anyone who saw Surviving Christmas (like I did) would recognize just what a low it was for him. Plus, it's also the last time we could really say "What were you thinking, Ben Affleck?"

Having worked on Daredevil with Jennifer Garner, Affleck married her in the middle of 2005, and things have been ever so slightly looking up for him since. (I have to assume they looked up quite a bit in his home life, but in terms of his career, it's been only slight). Around this time he made a movie that ended up going straight to DVD called Man About Town, which I did not see, and had a brief appearance in Clerks II, which I did not see, as "Gawking Guy." Since no one's ever heard of the first one, and since the last one was probably done as a favor to Kevin Smith (who helped get him started), let's leave them out of this discussion.

When I really noticed the change was when Affleck appeared in Hollywoodland, which I saw earlier this week. (It was one of two Affleck movies I am going to discuss that I first saw within the last week. Yes, I do my homework.) My first thought was "Ben Affleck is not the lead in this film -- how strange." (That honor went to Adrien Brody.) My second thought was "He's playing a guy who's already dead (former Superman George Reeves) when the story begins." Neither of these things seemed very Affleck-y to me. I was tipped off to something changing in the winds. And while I was actually disappointed in Hollywoodland, I do think it showed some new growth for the guy we assumed had stopped growing -- even though he's pretty wooden at times. A number of people seemed to disagree with me, as he won a couple very low level acting prizes, and was actually nominated for a Golden Globe. This was the fall of 2006.

In 2007, Affleck was in Smokin' Aces. I am going to eliminate this from my discussion because I don't even remember him in that film. However, I would consider it a step backward if I did remember him.

But then he actually put the brakes on acting altogether, and the movie coming out today will be his first acting role since then. Curious decision for a guy who had just experienced a comeback of sorts in Hollywoodland. I'm getting more intrigued.

The most obvious reason is that this is when Affleck decided to direct his first feature. And this is where he gets back a ton of the credibility that never seemed to fit him with his Good Will Hunting Oscar, which prompted some people to wonder how much of that script he actually wrote. Not only did he direct last year's Gone Baby Gone, but he also co-wrote the script. And this film, while imperfect in some ways, is such a startling achievement in other ways that it seems a feat of incredible maturity, especially for him. Not only does Affleck get Boston down perfectly in this film -- maybe we sports fans should let him speak for us after all -- but the way he gets down Boston is so much better than Clint Eastwood tried to interpret it in the over-acclaimed Mystic River. Unlike Eastwood, he didn't need to make up parts of Boston that didn't exist, and he seems to have an almost effortless understanding of the character types that populate Boston's seedier areas. The film is directed with an incredibly sure hand, and even though some of the character development is wanting, his brother Casey (a far more talented actor) really helps bring the movie home. (As does Amy Ryan, who was nominated for an Oscar for it). It would be a good achievement for a really acclaimed director -- for Affleck, it's downright astonishing.

And now this. His role in He's Just Not That Into You seems like an act of real humility. No, it's no great work of art -- without seeing it I can say that pretty assuredly. But for Affleck, it seems to say, "Hey, want to take a chance at liking me again?" Maybe it's baby steps back toward the old Affleck, the guy who might show up as the star of Transformers 3 in 2011 if he's not careful. But I don't think so. I think it's Affleck with his head screwed on right, willing to accept work for the sake of being a part of the industry he loves, not for taking a stab at the tabloid life he used to live. And maybe we have Jennifer Garner to thank for that.

I still don't love Ben Affleck. I still think he's as often challenged by acting as he is successful at it, and I still think there's something wooden about him. But I always like it when someone seems to recognize their limitations and live within them, while taking calculated risks -- like Gone Baby Gone -- which, if they fail, will at least result in noble failure.

If Affleck can keep doing that, maybe I really will like him someday.


Daddy Geek Boy said...

I will always line Ben Affleck because of Dazed and Confused. But most recently, his spot on Keith Olbermann impression on SNL.

He's truly talented and seems a lot more sane since he's gotten away from that horrid beast that is J Lo.

Vancetastic said...

I will steal Don's comment and say, "Affleck, you were the bomb in Phantoms, yo."