By sheer coincidence, I happened to watch these two movies back to back, which proved to be very revealing in that both are explorations of extremely psychologically damaged characters, and both movies unintentionally illuminate Hollywood’s darkest secret. One is terrible, the other is terrific.
In MANCHESTER BY THE SEA we get the same nasty, foul-mouthed, violent, intentionally obnoxious New England punk we have seen ad nauseam done by Matt Damon, who was originally scheduled to do this film, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Ben Affleck, brother of the actor who plays the lead, Lee Chandler, Casey Affleck.
From the first scene, which takes place in the distant past, Affleck’s Lee is just as obnoxious as he is post tragedy, with mannerisms and an uninflected vocal delivery that makes everything he says irritatingly defiant of anyone who dares to try to engage him. He is a hateful, hate filled man. We get the picture. When we arrive at the present, he’s the same dead-faced, angry man who won’t even allow you to see a scintilla of his real self.
He is just as crude and obnoxious to his wife. Everything he does is a deliberate insult to her. She is sick; he jumps on her with his cool designer work boots still on. She is tired; he wakes the baby for no reason other than for us to see him hold the child he will later burn to death. The same is true of his meaningless interaction with his two daughters.
He is such a loathsome all around punk that when life gives it to him good and hard, in a drug fueled, drunken, angry act of negligence he accidentally immolates his three children, no one can say he didn’t get exactly what was coming to him. This character must die, if not physically, then emotionally, if there is to be a reason to continue to watch this movie. But he doesn’t. He stays exactly the same as he was before. Oh, there is a little bit of bromance with his nephew, who is the softer, more philosophic, obnoxious tough guy, much like Matt Damon in GOOD WILL HUNTING.
In a chance, final encounter with his wife, who tries to sympathize with him, he says, “There’s nothing there.” This is the key to the theme of this movie. There is nothing there because Lee is only half a character; he’s acting out the suppressed rage of Hollywood elitists who are unintegrated personalities. The other half of their personality is the super “Liberal” snowflake, Goody Two-Shoes, who must always remain perfect and above criticism
In order for there to be “something” there, you have to integrate your personality so you can feel for yourself and others. Any normal person, who’d gone through what Lee had, would at some point rage against something. What he raged against would tell us a lot about who he was, his past, his understanding of his life and his life choices. His rage would have shown that either he was heading toward redemption or locked into some mental squirrel cage, going round and round, heading toward death.
But that never happens because Lee is not a whole character; rather he’s Hollywood’s alter ego. It is this alter ego that they hysterically project onto Red State America. They look at others who dare to criticize them and feel a senseless, inchoate fury rise from their subconscious into their consciousness. But they cannot acknowledge that rage as their own, because it violates their super talented, highly sensitive snowflake identity.
Certainly, this Lee Chandler character is interesting as a psychological phenomenon, but he doesn’t for a moment come close to being interesting as a real person, because he has no story, just a horrible present that he can never escape. All his fights are bickering over nothing. No narrative explanation is or can be given, because the people who made this movie and celebrate it don’t know the explanation for this mad man Lee, their nightmare self, who they must project onto outsiders, a very common cause of prejudices of all types. Hollywood's darkest secret is that hidden in their subconscious is a violent, hate filled persona they project onto Trump and his supporters.
Juxtapose this with the biopic LOVE AND MERCY about the life of Brian Wilson of the BEACH BOYS and the contrast is almost embarrassing. Geniuses are allowed to have pasts, failures, and recoveries. Yes, Brian Wilson was a real super-sensitive and highly talented artist, but given what he endured in his life, he was no snowflake.
Nevertheless, the movie is excellent. Yes, it drips with hero worship, but when your hero is Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, who’s eminently worthy of that worship, it makes for a very eloquently realized film.
Don’t get the wrong idea that this is just a high brow movie. Exactly the opposite. It’s pure movie mesmerism. They tell Brian's story so well, you think it’s the best documentary ever, and that you were there with them as it happened.
The casting is touched by magic. Paul Dano is absolutely, flawlessly superb as the younger Brian Wilson, whose genius keeps the group on top, but success draws not only wealth and fame, but malice, especially from his father, who knows every vicious way to wound his son. John Cusack as the older Wilson is just as magical. I haven’t seen this much brilliant acting in years. And Melinda Banks is a leading lady to reckon with. She has only to shift her gaze for you to know her thoughts and deepest feelings. Paul Giamatti plays a marvelously crazy psychiatrist/villain.
Wilson’s mental breakdown is not dwelt upon beyond what is necessary to understand the second act of his life; nor do they over explain. The director and screenwriter wisely let you watch Melinda, a car sales person, encounter, fall in love with and fight for Wilson’s sanity. Interwoven with their love story is the Wilson and the Beach Boys past of success, fame and creativity. I know nothing about music so the several scenes showing Wilson's budding talent exploding in the studio as he learns to orchestrate his songs was fascinating. I, like millions of others, always loved the Beach Boys music, but I never had any idea how musically complex, innovative and orginal their music is.
For me, the movie was winner in every category. It's a great pop music success story. It's a great show biz rags to riches story, with tragedy and triumph. It's a love story, and it's the story of a man fighting for his sanity in a very crazy world. And the music is THE BEACH BOYS. It doesn't get better!!!
Sadly, in contemporary Hollywood, they simply cannot muster any sympathy for the ordinary man. He must be a genius, or he’s a threat and must get it good and hard, just like he deserves. Sad.