Ever since I saw what I consider to be the best movie about grief ever made, Lawrence Kasdan’s 1988 melodrama The Accidental Tourist, I’ve been waiting for a film of this caliber to register and resonate with me. If you haven’t yet seen it or worse, you can’t remember it since it came out nearly thirty years ago, do so. It’s a movie rich in restrained performances from everyone, especially William Hurt. Here he plays a father separated from his wife (Kathleen Turner, also a walking facade of buried emotions) following the terrible death of his son. A chance meeting with a quirky dog trainer (Geena Davis, in a role that won her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) who has her own drama brewing in the background takes Hurt into places his character would have never gone to had he remained with his siblings. Even when Tourist veers somewhat shy of devolving into a muted soap, there’s a complete arc within the players and even minor characters, such as that of Hurt’s character’s sister played by Amy Wright) who also find their own balance.
Movies have become less straightforward in presenting their plots as of late and often wander along, letting characters present themselves, interact, and breathe. Often scenes tend to end either in a completely unexpected place to where they should have, or have no apparent resolution at all. Chris Kelly’s debut feature film Other People, which alongside Manchester by the Sea had its premier last year at Sundance, is the funnier of the two as it navigates a parent’s cancer and a family dysfunction with laugh-out-loud moments that only foreshadow what’s to come. Already we know what has happened at the first scene as the family Other People focuses on lies crying in a bedroom after some devastating news, but Kelly takes you back to the previous year to focus on how we got here.
David (Jesse Plemons) has had a series of unfortunate events that have led him back home to Sacramento. First off, a breakup with his boyfriend, followed by a pilot for a TV show that has not been picked up. The news that his mother Joanne (Molly Shannon) has been diagnosed with cancer is the cherry on top, and while she continues to live her life at the full, David has to pretend that all is going well to keep her spirits up.
As Joanne’s cancer moves into the forefront and starts picking at her body, Kelly maintains the tone light even when it’s clear that we’re headed for the worst: the best moment in the film arrives when Joanne decides not to continue with her chemo and allow the cancer to take her. Shannon’s scene could have been played for retro-80s maudlin (the same way Shelby’s diabetes was in Steel Magnolia’s), but Shannon plays it against tears and all for inner strength and even gets laughs when she can’t decide how she’d like her body to be treated when she herself is gone. In fact, I would have preferred more of a focus on Joanne than David. While Plemons as David demonstrates he’s capable of playing a believable gay man navigating single-hood, David’s troubles compared to his mother’s pale a bit and seem to belong in another film altogether. Shannon, in her brief scenes, becomes the reason to watch this touching little film. She owns it. [B]
Manchester by the Sea is by doubt a critic’s darling. Just go to Metacritic to see how high it rates and you’ll see. Even the lowest rating still manages to praise the film for its restraint that builds up to moments of powerful revelations of grief that speak about the nature of suffering and attempting to pick up the pieces, an act that is marred only by its central character’s mute nature. When you’re up against half a planet raving about something like this, it’s hard not to get sucked up by the vortex of praise for the sake of it, if at all to be one with the agreeing crowd.
Reader, I really wish I could like Manchester by the Sea more. I wish I could rave about it, go over and over the way its story evolved. I wish I could feel just what the characters themselves were feeling. Something that I can’t explain distances me from Kenneth Lonergan’s movie and I think that it’s how heavy handed it is, how long it stretches out a narrative of potential healing, and how a secondary story almost took me out of the film too many times that it felt as though I should be watching something else entirely instead of a focused, tighter tale of familial woes.
If there is anything to be said in the positive about Manchester by the Sea is the fact that it’s led by Casey Affleck who as Lee Chandler anchors the film with his rock of a character. He’s unyielding to his own grief and can only seethe quietly. This is an act that starts almost too quietly: you see him in the first scene of the film going throughout his business, from apartment to apartment, performing his job in total silence even when he overhears a client practically hitting om him. A demanding customer pushes Lee’s buttons too hard, he lashes out, and then gets into a bar fight. This pretty much defines the character to a fault: this is a man who is so tightly wound he can only drown his anguish in sorrows and let loose when a perceived slight crosses his path.
We don’t know yet what happened, but much like William Hurt’s character in Accidental Tourist, we learn not only about the tragedy but how horrific it was, how it destroyed his family and even expanded to also take his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) away and drive his sister-in-law (Gretchen Mol) to drink. The only salvaging hope, which also arrives with the quality of an unwanted responsibility, comes in the form of Joe’s last will and testament. In the event of his death Joe had wanted Lee to take custody of his16 year old son Patrick. Patrick comes with his own set of personality quirks — he’s dating two girls and has a temper issue that often clashes with Lee. Patrick’s storyline seems a bit too separated from Lee’s and seems to fill the narrative with images from a sex romp with comic overtones. I can only surmise that Lonergan felt bringing Patrick’s own comedic troubles would lift the movie from its heavier themes, but this is where I felt removed a tad.
However, the meandering plot, it eventually arrives to the scene that has to happen: the meeting with Randi (Michelle Williams) and Lee. It happens twice, but the second time around it reveals just how much of an acting powerhouse Affleck is. It is an emotional climax that offers no solutions, no comfort, only tears that go on and on. It’s a shame that much of what should have been a finer film gets lost in teenage muck that adds nothing but time to an emotional bomb that has to go off sometime. Had Manchester by the Sea been trimmed by at least 20 – 30 minutes, I would have enjoyed it more. A shorter road to a potentially hopeful future would have made this the masterpiece critics rave about.
Me? It’s a good movie trapped by a meandering sense of time and space, held together at the seams by the performances of Affleck and Williams. [B-]