Manchester by the Sea (Roadside Attractions, R)

Manchester by the Sea never really earns the responses it wants to elicit from its viewers.

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Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea has “prestige picture” written all over it. It has the length (135 min.), the technical package (including stunningly beautiful cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes and a soundtrack heavy with portentous classical music), and a story centered around the tribulations of a sad white man (the better to register with the white men who predominate among Oscar voters). Unfortunately, while it includes a strong central performance and many effective moments, Manchester by the Sea never really earns the responses it wants to elicit from its viewers.

Let me say up front that I have nothing against lengthy and serious pictures, and in fact, am quite a fan of Lonergan’s 2011 film Marguerite (which is actually longer than Manchester by the Sea). But that picture starred the supremely talented Anna Pacquin as a young woman who changes in insightful and non-obvious ways over the course of the film, plus a strong cast of supporting actors playing characters who were more than plot points to the story of Pacquin’s character. It also told a story you don’t see every day (the stories of women, young women in particular, being sadly underrepresented in American cinema) with real insight and captured the feeling of life on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in a way that is surprisingly rare on film.

The central character in Manchester by the Sea is Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who works as a handyman in a Boston suburb and expresses his individuality by being sarcastic to the people he works for and by getting into bar fights. Apart from that, Lee spends most of the film with his emotions firmly locked inside himself, but since he occupies the place of privilege in a prestige picture, as filmgoers we’re pretty much obliged to assume there’s a reason he should command our interest. This type of locked-up performance is catnip to many critics, as witnessed by the raves Steve Carell received for his performance as John du Pont in Foxcatcher; if you liked that film, you may like this one as well.

Lee is jolted out of his routine when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), who lives in Manchester (the one in Massachusetts, not the one in New Hampshire), has a heart attack. When Joe dies, Lee is surprised to learn that he has been named as the guardian of his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Once upon a time that would have been no problem—the Chandlers were a close-knit family in Manchester, and Joe, Lee, and Patrick spent many a happy hour together doing guy stuff—but then the Horrible Event occurred, and Lee withdrew from the family, and from life in general.

While Lee tries to figure out how to live up to his new responsibilities without discarding his protective shell, Manchester by the Sea works toward the big reveal that explains how he came to be the way he is today. When you learn what the Horrible Event is, you can understand why he is so scarred by it, although that’s not enough to make him interesting, no matter how much throbbing music is playing on the soundtrack. My first thought was that Lee is lucky he’s in the demographic category he is in and was pals with the local cops, or his life right now could be a whole lot worse than it is.  My second thought is that this would have been a more interesting film had Lee been granted a shred of awareness into the many advantages he enjoys due to such accidents of birth, but then he’s the kind of guy that probably regards thinking as something real men don’t do.

Casey Affleck gives the kind of performance that pretty much guarantees an Oscar nomination, but that’s not enough to make this film work. Lonergan also wrote Manchester by the Sea, and the screenplay contributes to the film’s problems. Most of the characters are no more than briefly sketched adjuncts to Lee’s story, resulting in the sad waste of the talents of, among others, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, and Matthew Broderick. In contrast, Lucas Hedges makes a strong impression as Patrick, as does Tate Donovan in a small role as Patrick’s hockey coach. The editing is disconcertingly choppy (leading me to wonder if some of the praise it received at Sundance was based on a longer version of the film), and the story jumps clumsily backward and forward in time, characteristics mar even the revelation of the Horrible Event, which is clearly meant to be this film’s centerpiece. Some of the choppiness may be due to editing for length, but that goal could have been better served by cutting out some of the repetitive scenes instead. | Sarah Boslaugh

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