You’ve got to admire the confidence of Gone Girl: this truly odd movie coughs up a bizarre story line mixed with comic social commentary, but it never loses its swagger. Being the eagerly awaited adaptation of a best-selling page-turner will encourage that kind of attitude, I guess.
Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel has a few twists up its bloodied sleeve, but we’ll be discreet here. The story begins with the disappearance of Amy (Rosamund Pike) from her unloved Missouri home, and escalates into a media circus as suspicion is cast on her husband Nick (Ben Affleck). Nick has the help of his sister (Carrie Coon) and a celebrity lawyer (Tyler Perry, excellent), but his status in the public eye is dismal. Meanwhile, we see excerpts from Amy’s diary, which fill in the picture of a marriage gone sour.
Ben Affleck’s career has been as turbulent and dramatic as they come. He was championed as a rising young actor, celebrated as the Oscar-winning screenwriter (shared with his childhood best friend Matt Damon) of Good Will Hunting, ridiculed as a pretty face in Michael Bay’s action spectacles, and written off after a string of box-office failures. As his star rose and he dated the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Lopez (which earned the name “Bennifer”), he became tabloid fodder, and his crash was splashed all over the media. He and Lopez split weeks before their wedding, his career took a header with flops like Gigli and Surviving Christmas, and he became an object of parody in an Off-Broadway satire called Matt & Ben, co-written by Mindy Kaling (who played Affleck onstage), not to mention a favorite target of Trey Parker (remember the line “I need you like Ben Affleck needs acting school” from Team America?).
That might be enough to end any career, but instead he stepped off the roller-coaster ride and took stock of his life and career. “I was frustrated with the movies that I had done,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2012. “I knew that I had something to offer. I said, ‘Here are the things I’d like to do: I want to direct movies, and I want to be in a movie that I’m enormously proud of. I want to have kids.’ I set out goals.”
By any measure, he is meeting them. He is happily married to Jennifer Garner, with whom he is raising three kids; his acting career has segued into mature screen roles; and third film as a director, Argo, was a popular hit, a critical success and Academy Award winner for Best Picture.
Now he’s been cast as Batman in the upcoming Superman sequel from Zack Snyder (an announcement that sent the fanboy comments pages flaming with an fiery outrage unseen since Heath Ledger was cast as The Joker) and has yet another adult drama coming out this month, playing an online gambling entrepreneur with an international drug sideline in Runner Runner.
What better time than now to look back on the long, strange trip that brought Ben Affleck from rising young star to pop culture punch line to one of Hollywood’s most respected filmmakers.
“Dazed and Confused” (1993): The beginning
While it wasn’t actually his film debut (that honor goes to School Ties), Richard Linklater’s cinematic flashback gave Ben Affleck his first real opportunity to show off his chops. The role of bonehead class bully Fred O’Bannion, a fifth-year senior and compulsive jerk who takes his failure to graduate as an opportunity to beat up incoming freshman for two years running, is little more than an aside in the film. Affleck stands out thanks to the petty cruelty and insufferable arrogance he brings to the part, and the wild-eyed fury during his ultimate humiliation has the feel of real Method acting. One wonders what sense memory that was pulled from.
In his own words: “I realized, when the movie came out, that I played the one really unappealing character in a huge movie full of really appealing characters. I love it. If they did a sequel, I would do it in a second. I mean, how awesome would it be to see what O’Bannion is doing now?”
Argo (Warner), the third feature from actor-turned-director Ben Affleck, was released early in October, just before the traditional roll-out of high-toned dramas and Oscar-bait showpieces gets aggressively competitive, and debuted to glowing reviews, enthusiastic audiences, and impressive box-office. Pretty good for a real-life drama about the stranger-than-fiction rescue of the six Americans who escaped capture when Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy and took American hostages. But then it’s a savvy picture that takes a few liberties with the historical record to create a nail-biter of an escape thriller.
It was an early Oscar favorite, then lost momentum as the season rolled ahead and competition heated up. For reasons still not clear, Ben Affleck was passed over as a Best Director nominee and even though the film snagged seven Oscar nominations – an impressive count by anyone’s standards – it seemed to have lost its luster. Then it caught its second wind: a Best Director award from the DGA, Best Director and Best Picture Golden Globes, an award for the ensemble cast from the Screen Actors Guild, and BAFTA wins for Best Picture and Best Director. Now, as handicappers tip “Argo” as for the Best Picture Oscar, it arrives on disc and digital delivery less than a week before the Academy Awards.
Awards hype aside, Argo is a terrific piece of filmmaking. Not Zero Dark Thirty brilliance or Life of Pi beauty, mind you, but a solid, well-made film with personality, humor, drama, tension, and a superb sense of time and place. Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio establish the era and the complicated history that created the Iranian situation smartly and efficiently, and Affleck seamlessly combines actual news footage with recreations that segue into the story at hand. And while I’m not convinced that the escape-movie contrivances that drive the film’s final act necessary to communicate the stakes of this mad plan, there is something oddly appropriate in the way this meeting of Hollywood fakery and true-story spycraft plays out like a movie.
[Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is currently reissuing a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. Author Robert Cumbow is a member of the Parallax View collective and his essays are being published simultaneously on Parallax View. The essay below was first published on 11/05/2008, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor).]
I always believed it was the things you donâ€™t choose that make you who you are: your city, your neighborhood, your family. People here take pride in those things. –Patrick Kenzie
Gosh, what a great year 2007 was for movies. You could wipe out the Academyâ€™s five Best Picture nominees, replace them with five others, and still have an honorable rack of best-picture candidates. One of those second five could easily be Ben Affleckâ€™s directorial debut Gone Baby Goneâ€”my personal vote for best film of the year.
A well-crafted film, richly deserving of the honors it has received, No Country for Old Mennevertheless too often feels like a collection of highlights from Cormac McCarthyâ€™s novel, sometimes about one guy, sometimes about another, never matching the novelâ€™s more focused vision. There Will Be Bloodis even more all over the mapâ€”gorgeous to look at, but without the discipline of knowing where itâ€™s coming from, where itâ€™s headed, and what, if anything, those two points have to do with each other. Michael Claytonbounces between rich characterization and caricature, moral complexity and empty-headed mantras about corporations. Atonementseems to be about one thing, but only for the purpose of revealing ultimately that it is about something else altogetherâ€”not romance or betrayal but the power of art to liberate, and the impossibility of such liberation. And it takes that war-epic detour in the middle, as if to say, â€œHey, guys, this isnâ€™t a chick flick! Honest!â€ Juno is primarily about language, but uneasily so, since its characters, who are all sharply defined and mostly well-rounded, nevertheless all speak with the same voiceâ€”the impossibly quick-witted and widely experienced voice of one clever writer. And the language of the filmâ€™s characters is an end, not a means, never satisfactorily bound to the filmâ€™s moral theme about decision-making.
Gone Baby Gone is also about decision-making; but unlike the Academyâ€™s five nominees, it is a film that from the first to the last frame never forgets what itâ€™s about, and remains unrelentingly faithful to its theme throughout. Director Ben Affleck shows an unerring eye and a concentration of intent that makes this film really special.