Some cities are blessed with great filmmakers. New York has Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Spike Lee. Baltimore has Barry Levinson, David Simon, and John Waters. But the good people of Boston have been deeply unlucky in this regard. Whether it’s the city’s clannish insularity, the fine-bore segregation of its neighborhoods, or the mix of effete, overeducated latte swillers and “gritty, working-class” knuckleheads, Boston has never translated well on film. But when it was announced that Ben Affleck was directing a film of the Dennis Lehane novel Gone Baby Gone, I was excited. For one thing, the novel was set in Dorchester, the “gritty, working-class” neighborhood where this overeducated latte swiller grew up. More importantly, though, back in 1997, Ben Affleck portrayed perhaps the most note-perfect Bostonian ever put on film, Will Hunting’s sidekick Chuckie Sullivan. With Chuckie behind the camera, I figured, Boston might finally get the movie it deserves.
And it does, sort of. Affleck’s movie feels more grounded in the specific geography of Boston than any other major Hollywood production ever has. And more populated by real Bostonians. But in striving to capture Boston in all its sordid glory, Affleck overapplies the grit. The problem struck me in an early scene in which the camera lingers on a gaggle of daytime boozers, and I swear, more than one of them has a cleft lip. In an effort to cast aside the Hollywood airbrush, Affleck has zoomed in on the freakish underbelly of Boston and somewhat overstated the case. The result is not so much what Mean Streets did for New York as what Deliverance did for Appalachia.
“I wanted something raw and authentic and even a little scuffed up,” Affleck told the New YorkTimes recently. For much of the movie, half of Dorchester seems to be standing around outside their creaky wooden houses, just killing time. But as the camera pushes in on dozens of extras—sickly skinny women and gin-blossomed men with complexions like blood sausage—”scuffed up” begins to feel positively generous. At a certain point, the parade of uglies marches past verisimilitude and into freak-show territory. This isn’t actually what the people of Dorchester look like. Yes, you can walk into a Dorchester bar and find a healthy crowd at 11 a.m. on a weekday. But give the barflies cleft lips, and you’re overdoing it a bit. It’s Dorchester by way of Diane Arbus.
To be sure, it’s not easy to make a good Boston movie. Rather than dwell on the particular offenses of, say, With Honors, Celtic Pride, or the peerless Soul Man, let’s cut to the root problem: It’s the accent. Even for our finest actors, the Boston accent is Everest: an irresistible, but insurmountable, challenge. Some especially foolhardy pros even adopt Boston accents in movies that aren’t set in Boston. What was Tom Hanks thinking in Catch Me if You Can? Time to prove the acting chops, that’s what he was thinking. Eat your heart out, Rain Man. I can do a Boston accent.
But he couldn’t. For all the long as and dropped rs, you could hear the physical strain in the line readings, like they were being squeezed from an empty tube of toothpaste. This may seem like a minor matter to you. But for those of us who grew up possessing, or shedding, a Boston accent, it’s a deal breaker. Consider, if you will, the embarrassing hilarity that tends to ensue when my dear father, unapologetic owner of a medium-thick Boston brogue, returns an off bottle of wine at a restaurant because “I know the taste of cork. And this tastes like cork.”
There have been decent Boston movies, of course, and some of the best of them, like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, or The Verdict, didn’t bother with the accent at all. More recently, Mystic River won all sorts of accolades, which was mysterious to me. Apart from its passing acknowledgment of gentrification, a strain that gets fuller treatment in the Lehane novel on which the film is based, and some nice exterior shots of three-decker apartment buildings, the movie doesn’t feel genuinely grounded in a specific place. Besides, Mystic River is just too somber and morose, with none of the music of Boston talk. Scorsese’s The Departed captured that music, thanks mostly to the staccato screenwriting of William Monahan, who was born in Dorchester and grew up in West Roxbury. But for all its quick-fire poetry, The Departed felt like a traveling Scorsese show that was stopping through town rather than something truly indigenous.
For my money, no screen Bostonian tops Ben Affleck’s Chuckie. Affleck was still a relatively unfamiliar face back in 1997, with a less dazzling set of teeth. He had the accent nailed, the swagger of the semiemployed, and the outfits—the outfits! One track suit after another, with the de rigueur gold chain worn outside the white turtleneck. By contrast, Matt Damon’s Will Hunting was too pretty to be believable as a hard kid from Southie. Trust me on this point. I tried sporting floppy bangs like that in the neighborhood, and they didn’t secure the respect of my fellow men. But as precisely the type of guy who used to call me Goldilocks, Affleck is perfect. There’s the classic “retaiiiner” speech, of course, and also this saccharine, yet still perceptive exchange, in which Chuckie makes clear that he knows his own limitations. He’s provincial. But he knows that he’s provincial. And that almost makes him cosmopolitan. That’s Boston.
Part of the irony, of course, is that Affleck’s not from Boston. He’s from what Bostonians insist on calling the People’s Republic of Cambridge. In writing a movie about the gulf between Cambridge and Southie, and choosing to play the guys from Southie, Affleck and Damon took a risk, and they delivered well enough that the movie has been embraced in Boston. So, I won’t begrudge Affleck simply for being Nawt from Dawt, as one Boston blog puts it. (Hell, if we could only claim our genuine native sons, we’d be stuck with the New Kids on the Block.)
Gone Baby Gone does certainly plunge into the neighborhood. Affleck offsets gorgeous, soaring helicopter shots of Southie with exterior shots of lived-in feeling homes around the Fields Corner section of Dorchester, and up and down Dot Ave. Casey Affleck’s Boston accent, delivered in his peculiar febrile croak, isn’t quite as good as his brother’s, but he could pass for a local. And as Helene McCready, the floozy mother of a missing girl, The Wire’s Amy Ryan (who hails not from Boston, but from Queens) creates an indelible Bostonian worthy even of Chuckie. As does her phenomenal, foulmouthed sidekick, Dottie, who cusses and preens and, in an inspired Boston malapropism, tells the press there will be a candlelight “visual” for the missing girl.
Yet while the three-deckers and the “real”-looking people might lead one to conclude that Affleck had adopted some kind of guerilla vérité technique, you’ve got to wonder: Where are all the Vietnamese people? Over the past 15 years Dot Ave, and especially the area around Fields Corner, has become home to a burgeoning community of Vietnamese immigrants. Gone Baby Gone effectively lays bare some of the casual racism in Boston, and those scenes add nuance and credibility to the movie. But that nuance is undermined when you consider the effort that must have gone into creating a Fields Corner without a single Vietnamese passer-by or storefront sign.
This is a modest cavil, I know. To the extent that filmgoers in the Midwest have any notion of racial tension in Boston, it’s probably a white-black, legacy-of-busing thing. Throw a bunch of Vietnamese people in there, and you’ll just confuse things. Plus, there’s a lot to celebrate about Gone Baby Gone; it certainly comes closer to accurately depicting Boston than its predecessors. But for all its authenticity, the Dorchester of the movie still looks the way it might look to an outsider—someone from Los Angeles, say, or from Cambridge. You don’t have to stick around through the closing credits for the personal thank yous to Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz to gather that while Affleck may forever be one of Boston’s most famous sons, at the end of the day, the guy’s Nawt from Dawt.