Review: Despite critical acclaim, ‘Manchester by the Sea’ sinks

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 2/14/17 1:55am

If “Manchester by the Sea” was a fairy tale, it would be the most downbeat one you’ve ever heard. Instead, it is a film that draws out every painful and saddening moment of its characters’ lives as they grieve the death of a beloved family member. In past reviews, I’ve tried to make clear that I have a special admiration for smaller, more personal films that are more concerned with character and story than spectacle. “Manchester by the Sea” should fit perfectly into that niche. And for some people it clearly did. The film is not only nominated for Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards, but many critics have also declared it as 2016’s best film. I only wish I felt the same way.

“Manchester by the Sea” is by no means a poorly-made film. Kenneth Lonergan’s directing is restrained yet beautiful, and the film’s smaller aspect ratio brilliantly reminds one of home video formats, which perfectly fits the more intimate nature of the story. More importantly, many of the performances have been rightfully lauded.

Prior accusations of Casey Affleck’s possible sexual misconduct are resurfacing, and the negative attention may well stop him from an otherwise deadlock win for Best Actor. And if the accusations are true, then rightfully so. But if the man can be separated from the performance, then there is no denying that this is some of the finest acting in recent years. Like Lonergan’s directing, Affleck as Lee Chandler, a sad, lonely janitor, is restrained but brilliant. I never knew there could be so many flavors of misery. Lucas Hedges, who plays Chandler’s nephew, holds his own as a grieving son. Michelle Williams’ minor role as Lee’s ex-wife has also received considerable buzz, which surprised me. Her performance was fine, but her subplot is never really resolved, a choice that doesn’t do the film any favors.

Also, what was Matthew Broderick doing in this movie? I know it’s a trivial thing to harp on, but throughout his entire cameo, all I could think was: “What the hell is Ferris Bueller doing in this film?” It was such a meaningless part that left me endlessly distracted. However, Broderick’s presence is the least of my grievances with the film. I almost welcomed the distraction because at least it shook me out of my melancholic stupor. The film isn’t crushingly depressing like, say, “Schindler’s List” but is instead persistently somber.

I want to make clear, though, that my problem with the film isn’t that it’s too depressing. It’s that the film has no real justification for its dourness. Compared to “Schindler’s List,” which is sad enough to ruin your week because it depicts one of the greatest tragedies in human history, “Manchester by the Sea” never seems to have a real reason for its sadness. Instead, I think what it wants to do is be a “slice of life” type of movie, telling a story which captures life as realistically as possible. “Boyhood” is a brilliant example of this; it sets out with no intention that you find deeper meaning in it, but its depiction of a simple life is so powerful that you’re bound to find something profound beneath the surface. I never felt that way with “Manchester by the Sea.” I felt genuinely sorry for some of the characters, but that was the extent of my emotional investment.

That being said, the biggest missteps actually come when Lonergan tries to lighten the mood, so I suppose there’s just no winning. With better direction, the many moments of awkward humor sprinkled throughout the film could have been used to transform it into a dark comedy, but the humor just isn’t well integrated. Consider, for example, the following moment: medics are trying to load an injured woman on a stretcher into the back of an ambulance, but they accidentally keep banging the stretcher into the bumper. The problem here isn’t with the scene itself but the fact that it occurs during the story’s most devastating plot point. As a result, it feels almost repulsive to laugh right in the middle of the surrounding tragedy.

I saw “Manchester by the Sea” a day after watching “Moonlight,” and in both cases, I correctly identified the films’ final shots. This is usually a good sign; it indicates that the director has control over his or her medium and knows how to wrap up the story with a seamless single image. With “Moonlight,” I felt the rush of emotions that I’m sure the director intended to convey. With “Manchester by the Sea,” I knew which emotions Lonergan wanted to emphasize, but did I actually feel any of them? Not really.

A part of me is glad that this movie has gotten as much attention as it has. More personal stories like this need to be told, but this particular film is not one I have any intention of seeing again. It’s not bad, but I don’t know if I’d call it good either. Some may be like me, but many will actually get a great deal out of this movie. It will speak to them in a way that it didn’t speak to me. Sometimes you can’t love them all. And that’s okay, too.

Rating: 5/10