Oct 09 2008

Review: Gone, Baby, Gone (Movie)

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: if profanity in movies bothers you, don’t watch this one. According to the director’s commentary, there are over 200 swear words in the movie, to the point where it’s almost a distraction early on. I’m not sure what the point of that was, since the book doesn’t have nearly that many, and books don’t have to go before rating boards. This is definitely not one for the whole family to watch.

Which brings me to my main problem with the movie: I’ve read the book. It’s the fourth book in a series by Dennis Lehane, the author of Mystic River. The five books follow private detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, and they’re some of my favorite suspense/mystery novels. Not many authors can tell stories like these while simultaneously exploring their characters to the depth that Lehane does. One who does a similar job is Stephen R. Donaldson, but that’s another review.

I know it’s not fair to blame a movie for not having everything the book has, or for being less complex, so I’m trying not to do that. I know if you tried to faithfully reproduce these books on film, you’d need several hours (which is why I think most novels should be TV miniseries, not feature films). But some things about the characters still bothered me.

Casey Affleck, who plays Patrick, is just too young and pretty. In the books, Patrick is regularly beaten up or shot. He’s 35-40 years old, and feeling the aches and pains of a life with too many hard knocks. (Lehane even said he took a break from writing about Patrick and Angie when he looked back at the books and saw how much of a beating he’d been giving them, and decided they deserved a break.) Affleck does a good acting job, but it’s a different character; I don’t think he ever even gets a split lip.

Angela is even worse. In the books, although we see the story through Patrick’s eyes, he and Angela are very much equal partners, and she’s saved his bacon as often as the reverse. Here, although Michelle Monaghan looks pretty much exactly like Angie looked in my head, she’s practically a mouse except for a couple scenes. She mostly just tails along with Patrick, and when they have their big disagreement at the end, it comes out of nowhere. (Starting with the fourth book really hurts here, because there’s no history to explain where they’re coming from.) Looking at the reviews, some people didn’t even know if she was Patrick’s wife, assistant, or what. That character was a major disappointment in the way it was written.

Almost as disappointing is Bubba. Lehane describes him as “six feet four inches, 235 pounds of raw adrenaline and disassociated anger. And he’d shoot anyone who blinked at [Patrick] the wrong way.” Movie Bubba is a fat kid who shows some menace, but nowhere near the barely controlled mayhem of the real Bubba. He’s a fairly standard Hollywood drug dealer, and we never get any indication of the way he feels about Patrick and Angie. No time for that, I suppose.

So if you want a great story, with deeply drawn characters who go through the wringer, get the books, starting with A Drink Before the War. Having said that, the movie is pretty good in its own right. The crime plot is scaled way back, and isn’t any easier to understand for being simpler, but it’s still suspenseful and entertaining. The way it was shot in Boston with a lot of locals as extras gives it a “real” feel that serves the story well. I’m not usually a person who notices direction unless it’s bad, but I think Ben Affleck did a good job here.

I like Casey’s voice-overs; his voice matches the character better than his looks. Amy Ryan is good as the mother of the kidnapped girl, although I was surprised to see she was nominated for an Oscar for mostly acting stoned and crying a lot. Her character is more likable here than in the book, but she’s still easy to loathe, which is critical.

The real star might be Ed Harris, who plays his character to the hilt. He’s electrifying every time he’s on screen. It’s too bad that some of the plot simplification required scaling back his character, so his motivation ends up being much simpler than it was originally, but it’s still a great performance. Come to think of it, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a bad performance from him.

I’m giving it three stars, for people who can take the profanity. It might deserve more than that, but it’s hard for me to see past how much better it could have been, if they’d been more faithful in reproducing the characters, especially Angie and Bubba. Maybe someday someone will do the series right, starting at the beginning and using TV to accommodate the full stories. Until then, this is a serviceable take on it.

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