There’s nothing wrong with well-made, albeit pathetic, kitchen sink realism; what’s wrong is overpraising it. That’s exactly what most critics have done by herding toward Manchester by the Sea, about a pitiful man (Casey Affleck) who must return to the eponymous New England town where he was traumatized. Writer/director Ken Lonergan is a fine a writer, and he often crafts the theatrical scenes in this melodrama to underscore humor: there’s a particularly funny montage that takes place during a funeral, while other funny scenes involve banter between the pitiful man and his horny nephew, whose attempts to get laid take up a lot of screen time. But Lonergan can also do pure sorrow: one of the highlights of the movie is a flashback that explains the pathetic man’s devastation. Besides the montages and flashbacks, however, you could say that most of this two-hour-plus film is just a play filmed smartly, not unlike the forgotten Certain Women (which we have not reviewed due to a conflict of interest). For the most part, in Certain Women, unlike here, few of the characters are likable and none are presented as victims. Michelle Williams, who starred in Certain Women, also has a key role in Manchester by the Sea, in which she is showy and posey—perhaps, blame that on the director. Some bad acting aside, no one is going to say that Manchester by the Sea isn’t a “good” movie—it checks off so many boxes important to critics: it’s got texture (maybe even ethnography), interiority, digressions, subtlety, and complex characters. But the bottom line is that this “good” movie sucks; it’s heavy and dull and repetitive and, once again, as so many prestige movies seem to do, it elevates a pitiful victim to be the protagonist. So, it didn’t surprise us that, when we looked over to the person next to us, she was dozing. Maybe, what’s “good” isn’t what’s interesting.
By Alec Julian & Carrie White