Why didn’t anyone prepare me for the weirdness of Manchester by the Sea?
All my least favorite critics adore the film, and the trailers unapologetically sell it as Oscar bait. I figured that, however much I liked it, it’d just be another forgettable character-study about white working-class dudes in Boston that we seem to get annually. Instead, Manchester by the Sea is one of the most bizarre mixed-bags I’ve ever seen. Usually I give “C” ratings to films that are just sort of “meh,” but Manchester by the Sea is the rare case of a “C” film that’s equal parts “A+” and “F.”
First and foremost, I need to dispel the hype that Casey Affleck’s lead performance is good. Only in a country that elected Donald Trump as president could Affleck’s irritating, obnoxiously inauthentic, cry-face performance be a shoe-in for a Best Actor win at the Academy Awards. Affleck is cartoonish to the point of being silly, and I can’t even imagine what the hell everybody is seeing that I’m not. However, because Manchester by the Sea is such an extremely mixed-bag, the flip side of Affleck’s terrible acting is that he plays an awesomely original character.
Lee Chandler (Affleck) is a janitor for low-rent apartments and living a lonely life in a Massachusetts suburb when he gets a call that his brother is dead. Chandler treks to the town of Manchester-by-the-Sea to look after his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), until he finds a legal guardian. Flashbacks slowly reveal nightmarish details about Chandler’s past that cleverly explain why he’s reluctant to take care of Patrick on his own. But, of course, Affleck’s melodramatic acting sucks the weight out of every scene. If I described his entire arc, Chandler sounds like a great character, but Affleck’s actual performance ruins him.
The trend continues with the rest of the cast, as every actor either poorly acts a well-written character or beautifully acts a poorly written character. The only performances and characters that are totally awful are a pair of impossibly genial born-again Christians that take the film on a weird detour from realistic drama to something else entirely…something that feels more like a bubbly John Waters satire. It’s a head scratcher of a scene that comes out of nowhere and just makes the overall experience feel that much stranger.
Except for the one outright terrible scene, there’s nothing in Manchester by the Sea that isn’t wildly, absurdly uneven. Honestly, I might need to see the film again just so I can make heads or tails of everything awesome and terrible in it. Beyond the wonky character drama, even the film’s bigger themes about unrelenting grief either feel insightful and personal or egregiously campy and insulting. Manchester by the Sea is a rollercoaster of unevenness that eventually becomes one of most bizarre films I’ve ever seen. How did this happen? And, more importantly, why didn’t anyone have the decency to at least give me a heads up???
Grade = C