By Cynthia Citron
Each week when I choose a play to review, I generally follow a set of guidelines that I have found to be most useful.
First, I don’t read other critics’ reviews. But since I usually go to opening nights, there aren’t other reviews around yet anyway.
My interest in a play is first attracted by the one or two brief explanatory paragraphs that the publicist sends in his or her press release. And since my main interest is words, I look to the playwright to develop a plot that includes a satisfying array of them. I especially love the work of the great 20th century writers and, since their work is usually familiar, that places an additional burden on the director and actors to do an especially fine job of presenting it.
But I am also intrigued by new plays with unique ideas, thoughtful communication and provocative twists and turns. And Los Angeles has many of those.
Why am I telling you all this? To let you know that my way of choosing a movie to review is considerably different. My first act is to consult Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic to see what grade the major movie critics have given a specific movie. Those two websites display the percentage, from 0 to 100%, of the critics’ combined judgments. If a film is rated at 80% or above, it is usually worth seeing.
Which explains why I was so interested in seeing “Manchester by the Sea”. That new film garnered a collective rating of 97% and has prompted much “Best Picture of the Year” talk.
Outdoing that encomium, however, is the buzz about Casey Affleck, who has turned in the most intense, mesmerizing performance of the decade as the troubled Lee Chandler, around whom all the action revolves. If he were older he would be a suitable match for Meryl Streep.
Lee has returned to his childhood home in Manchester-by-the-Sea, one of four northeast-of-Boston vacation towns jutting into the Atlantic Ocean on the curving sweep of Cape Ann. He has come there to bury his older and much loved brother Joe (played by Kyle Chandler of “Friday Night Lights”) and has temporarily left his job as a handyman/plumber in the less affluent suburbs south of Boston. We see him there as an angry, belligerent, trash-talking man who will fight anyone in the bar after he has consumed a number of beers. In his home town, however, he only flares up occasionally, remaining quiet and reclusive the rest of the time.
With his silences, his inability to make small talk or even maintain a conversation, you might almost think he was suffering from Aspberger’s Syndrome. He is not somebody who is easy to warm up to. But his human suffering and pain eventually get to you and after a while you feel like you’re drowning in it.
Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote and directed this film, has made it more of a French drama than a traditional American one. Lee struggles to deal with the death of his brother, the divorce from his wife, and the fact that he has been named the guardian of his brother’s son, a rambunctious 16-year old whom nobody knows what to do with. Lucas Hedges, who plays Patrick, the son, is a perfect foil for Casey Affleck and will probably grow up to BE Casey Affleck. He’s that good an actor.
The reason “Manchester-by-the-Sea” feels more French than American is that Lonergan’s style consists of many pauses and close-ups that go on forever. The film itself is a work of art, but the mood it generates Is terminally exhausting.
On the Rotten Tomatoes scale, I give it a 54.
Released in time for Oscar consideration, “Manchester by the Sea” is running now in theaters all over Santa Monica and Los Angeles.