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Ben Affleck's roller coaster takes a new turn

October 14, 2007|Patrick Goldstein | Times Staff Writer

Ben Affleck is musing about why Clint Eastwood and Warren Beatty are such gods to a younger generation of actors, especially actors trying their hand at directing, as Affleck has just done with the new film "Gone Baby Gone," when he gets to the nub of things. Of course Eastwood and Beatty are wise, talented men who've consistently made personal films, but Affleck knows there's something more compelling about their choices in life.

"What really sets them apart," he says, "is that they don't seem to need to please other people." That last observation is accompanied by a rueful smile, since Affleck is self-aware enough to know that trying to please people has played a large role in his own fall from grace, a fall hastened by the poisonous tabloid exploitation of his brief engagement to Jennifer Lopez. Over the last decade, he's boxed the compass, going from baby-faced Sundance sensation ("Chasing Amy") to Oscar-winning screenwriter ("Good Will Hunting") to Michael Bay-blockbuster movie star ("Pearl Harbor") to "Bennifer"-era-tabloid subject of derision ("Gigli"). After several box-office duds, his last film, "Man About Town," never got a theatrical release.

You know times are hard when the Onion runs a photo of a forlorn Affleck with the headline: "Ben Affleck Hoping Jason Bourne Has Sidekick in Next Movie." A passionate baseball fan, Affleck offers a refreshingly blunt assessment of how Hollywood views his acting career at the moment: "You don't get four strikes."

Affleck can wax eloquent about fighting AIDS in Africa, analyze the insidious nature of using what many consider torture in the war on terror and quote the Latin motto of the Carthusian Order -- Stat crux dum volvitur orbis ("The cross is steady while the world is turning") -- but no matter how much you are impressed by his thoughtful demeanor, it's hard to avoid the obvious question: How did someone so smart end up in so many dumb movies? At 35, Affleck is still unwrinkled and boyishly handsome, but the scars from his career choices and tabloid tormentors aren't far from the surface.

Even just last week he found himself being quoted in the tabloids -- falsely he says -- complaining that Lopez had "hurt his career." Affleck, who is now married to actress Jennifer Garner, argues that "surely there are other things more important in the world, such as poverty in America, the fact that New Orleans hasn't been rebuilt, my movie, the Red Sox getting back to the World Series." As for the quote in question, it "not only makes me look like a petulant fool, but it surely qualifies as ungentlemanly. For the record, did she hurt my career? No."

It is not uncommon to sit down with Hollywood talent who seem entirely clueless about how damaging their choices have been. Far from being in denial, Affleck has the air of someone who has spent many a night brooding about how things have gone awry. For him, the whole painful experience can be boiled down to a mantra-like life lesson: "What you do speaks for you."

That seems to be the guiding principle behind tackling "Gone Baby Gone," a dark, disturbing thriller about the search for a missing child that is far more a wrenching morality tale than a crowd-pleasing entertainment. Shot in blue-collar Boston and adorned with a stellar cast that includes Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman and Amy Ryan, the film cost $19 million, not much more than what Affleck used to get for his superstar roles. Among Hollywood cognoscenti, Affleck's determination to direct a gritty Dennis Lehane novel has a high degree of difficulty, starting with the fact that, when it comes to Lehane territory, Affleck is following Eastwood's "Mystic River," which is sort of like following Ryan Howard in a home-run hitting contest.

A turn at the lectern

Just to up the ante, Affleck cast his little brother, Casey Affleck, in the film's leading role, playing Patrick Kenzie, the dogged private investigator who refuses to give up his search for the missing child, no matter where it might lead. Affleck admits that he was scared the first day he strode onto the set. "My chest was tight as a drum. It was like being in class where you're thinking, 'What if I get up to the lectern and have nothing to say?' But I knew I wanted to get up to the lectern."

I'd argue that his faith has been rewarded. The movie showcases Affleck's gift for coaxing great performances out of his actors, most notably Casey, who has won raves for his role as an easily underestimated investigator. But the film has also earned praise for the unstinting way it grapples with difficult moral choices, reminding us that doing the right thing is often a true test of character.

The early reviews have been full of praise. Lauding its "rich gallery of vivid characters," the Hollywood Reporter's Stephen Farber said "Gone Baby Gone" will be "remembered as one of the best crime movies of this decade."

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