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An autopsy for The Town (Warner Bros.) would list multiple causes of death. Ben Affleck's second directorial outing after Gone Baby Gone also marks his first time directing himself, a notoriously difficult trick to pull off. Next, there's the laudable but misguided scope of the movie's ambition: Affleck tries to cram a heist thriller, a buddy movie, and a wrong-side-of-the-tracks romance into one sweeping two-hour-plus epic.
What ultimately kills The Town, though, is the notion that Ben Affleck is a criminal mastermind, a bank-robbing prodigy with a crack team of thugs at his command. We don't want Affleck the mastermind, we want Affleck the meathead. (His greatest role to date, Slate culture editor John Swansburg and I agree in the Spoiler Special podcast for this review, is still O'Bannion, the wooden-paddle-wielding high-school bully in Dazed and Confused.) If the two male leads in this movie had switched places—Jeremy Renner as the brains of the holdup gang, Affleck as his dim, sadistic right-hand man—the story might conceivably have worked (though given Affleck's limited resources as a thespian, the optimum solution would have been for Renner to play both roles.)
The Town kicks off with a high-octane, if not entirely coherent, action sequence, as a team of armed men in masks knocks over a Boston bank branch. In the confusion of the getaway, they decide for some reason to take the young manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), hostage, then let her go that same afternoon. After the woman tells her story to an FBI agent (Don Draper, pardon, Jon Hamm), the gang's loose cannon, Jem (Renner), offers to track down the manager and "take care of her." Cooler-headed Doug (Affleck) assures Jem that all she needs is a good scare. So he trails the victim to a Laundromat. But when she tearfully confesses that she's had a hard week, Doug does a 180-degree turn. Instead of identifying himself as the robber and threatening her with imminent bodily harm if she doesn't keep her trap shut, he asks her out for a drink.
The romance that ensues, a yuppie bank manager falling for the charms of the working-class bank robber, is the movie's single most un-buyable element (and believe me, there's some competition in this department). It's not that a relationship couldn't spark across these class lines, but we have to be given some reason why either of these two parties would want it to. More fundamentally, the deception at the heart of Doug and Claire's courtship makes it impossible to root for this couple. ("It's a shame things got started on the wrong foot with that whole armed robbery/kidnapping thing, but I really hope these kids can make it work!")
Other occasions for incredulity include an elaborate heist in Fenway Park. The movie is almost aggressively regional, with establishing shots of the Bunker Hill monument every 15 minutes (what, no closeup of a bowl of chowder?). The "town" of this movie's title is not Boston as a whole but Charlestown, an isolated one-square-mile former Irish enclave that, while it's now gentrifying, has a history as the nation's prime breeding ground for bank robbers. Affleck clearly loves his hometown, and according to my native Bostonian viewing partner, he wasn't overdoing the Cliff Clavin working-class accent. When he's not relying on aerial shots, Affleck does dig up a few choice Charlestown locations: rundown community youth centers, a corner barbershop, the kind of nameless Irish bars where nothing good ever happens.
Hurt Locker hype aside, Jeremy Renner legitimately qualifies as an exciting new actor (by which I mean new to the public consciousness—he's been acting for more than a decade). He's just somehow thrilling to watch, even though, as Jem, he doesn't get to do much more than go down in flames, Public Enemies-style. Rebecca Hall—Vicky of Vicky Cristina Barcelona—is one of those high-strung, transparent beauties whose every thought flickers across her face. Like Jennifer Connelly, she's fun just to stare at; watching her expression change is like watching water.
But Affleck—look, I understand that there are people who find him a congenial screen presence, though I don't number among them. Even so, let's not kid ourselves about his acting. In a picnic scene with his abduction-victim-turned-girlfriend, Doug relates the story of his mother's disappearance when he was 6. As he delivers his soliloquy, it's easy to picture the lines marked in yellow highlighter on Affleck's copy of the script: "The first thing I remember is the sound [beat]." More problematic than Affleck's acting, though, is the picnic scene itself, which exists in order to show us that poor, struggling, disadvantaged Doug is finally opening up and telling the truth to someone. Maybe instead of the childhood anecdote, he could have started with, "Hey, you know that guy who blindfolded you at gunpoint and threw you into a van? Funny story. ..."