Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Ben Affleck Can't Act

I mean really. Stinkeroo. What an amateur. I actually got so annoyed with how bad his performance was in Boiler Room that it took me right out of the movie. And this wasn't even a movie like Gigli where the badness was legendary. This was supposedly a solid performance in a solid movie.

People kept telling me I had to watch this movie Boiler Room. If I liked Wall Street, which I do - and if I liked Glengarry Glen Ross, which I really do - then I owed it to myself to watch Boiler Room. So I picked it up as a rental. (In a nutshell: it was watchable but mediocre.)

Now here's what Variety said about this movie: a "likable ensemble, with a bravura turn from Ben Affleck". And: "Almost every character in Younger's elegantly staged thriller is borrowed from Stone or Mamet, beginning with Affleck's Jim Young, essentially the Alec Baldwin role from "Glengarry Glen Ross".

Here's the New York Times: "In its close attention to the hard-sell ethos of buying and selling, lying and cheating, "Boiler Room" calls to mind another movie its characters occasionally quote, James Foley's 1992 adaptation of David Mamet's play "Glengarry Glen Ross." (At times it hews a bit too close for comfort. Affleck's role -- to say nothing of his suit, his hair and his handsome hint of jowliness -- seems to have been traced over the outline of Alec Baldwin in that earlier movie.)"

One more, from the LA Times: "The way this movie deliberately evokes memories of "Wall Street" and "Glengarry Glen Ross" invites the audience to make comparisons. Ben Affleck plays a small role that is clearly modeled on the tough, arrogant Alec Baldwin character in "Glengarry."

Strong praise, right? I mean - it sounds like Affleck's got a really juicy role where he channels the Alec Baldwin part from Glengarry Glen Ross. Now, I want you to watch both scenes. I want you to watch Alec Baldwin's scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, and then watch Ben Affleck's similar part in Boiler Room. Then we'll come back for discussion.

So you've watched both of them? Me too. Do you see now how godawful Ben Affleck is when you compare it to an actual great performance? And God help me - I never thought I would ever say this - but Alec Baldwin has some serious acting chops. He absolutely nails it. Or maybe he doesn't? Maybe Ben Affleck is just so bad that he makes Baldwin look like Lee Strasberg.

Affleck can't blame the Boiler script. It's top notch. The editing seems okay. He's lit well. He has no one to blame but himself. Seriously this is one of the most botched, painful, amateurish community-theater-level performances I've ever seen. He works himself up into belligerence... and then just keeps it there. He just shouts out every line in faux-drill sergeant anger. No modulation, no playing around with tempo, volume, intensity... it's just memorized lines being barked at you. Look at the Glengarry performance again. Look at how Baldwin changes gears throughout the scene. How he uses body language. How he plays off the other actors. How (if I can borrow from the SNL cowbell sketch) he really "explores the space".

Baldwin rotates through smarm, menace, fury, sarcasm; he drips with contempt for everybody and needles them expertly. Look at when he towers over Lemmon and put his hands on the desk. "These people are sitting out there waiting to give you their money! ... Are you going to take it? ... Are you man enough to take it?" There's a little smile there. He finds the humor in the line. Is he smiling because he feels a little sadistic pleasure in humiliating Lemmon? Or because he recognizes the ridiculousness of what he's asking? Or because he's trying to encourage Lemmon to get mad? You can interpret it many ways.

Another aspect of the performance is how comfortable Baldwin seems in his viciousness. He's not giving a screaming rant of a performance where his face gets red and his neck veins bulge. He's calm - even as he's dishing out withering abuse and shouting obscenities. You get the feeling that he has a whole other level of anger that you don't even want to tap into. It's such a controlled, compelling character and performance. There's a lot baked in there for just 7 minutes, and Baldwin hits it out of the park.

Now, painful as it is, go back to Affleck. After watching the Glengarry scene can you even sit through this open-mike-night quality bullshit? Who at Variety was calling this a "bravura turn"? First of all, terrible casting. Who could possibly believe chubby-cheeked, baby faced Ben Affleck as some sort of corporate pit bull? His anger is whiny. Listening to him it sounds like he's never yelled at anyone before in his life. He doesn't know the rhythm of it. He sounds like a high school jock who unexpectedly has to give the team pep talk because the coach is out sick. He thinks the shouting is the performance. But it's not supposed to be. The script has him singling out Giovani Ribisi for praise, and it clearly makes Ribisi uncomfortable. Is Affleck even aware of that? When he tells the other guy "It's not funny.", does it sound even remotely natural? His hand gesture at the end... do you buy it for a second?

I did find one critical take on Affleck during my internet search, and it came from Maxim of all places: "Remember Bugsy Malone, that movie where there was a bunch of little kids acting like tough gangsters? Well, since Boiler Room was a pre-K version of Glengarry Glen Ross, it's no wonder Affleck delivers a watered-down, pre-pubescent version of Baldwin's classic castrating sales lecture. Affleck's about as intimidating as a male nurse, so the effect is, let's say, less intense than the stare-down from Alec's Blake. Hey, Ben, put that coffee down."

It's just a total embarrassment of what could have been a great scene, but for our boy Ben not having a single clue how to take advantage of an A+ part. A part where if he had just been adequately good he could have conceivably stolen the film. He is so godawful in that conference room that I was forced to write two full paragraphs praising Alec Baldwin. Ben Affleck should quit movies and find an entirely new career, maybe operating an apple pushcart in a park somewhere.

That's it! I'm done!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

"To Be Honest" is a Perfectly Useful, Appropriate Phrase

I am really getting tired of the people who interrupt you when you begin a sentence with "To be honest". They stop you mid sentence and say "What do you mean, 'To be honest'? Does that mean you aren't honest the rest of the time? That you were lying?"

You get the same criticism for "Honestly," or "To be frank," - any of these phrases that connote that you're about to get serious with the other person. My last boss was particularly strict about this. He absolutely did not want to hear "To be honest" because he thought it spoke badly of your character. And because he was the boss, it filtered through the organization to the point where nobody could comfortably use the phrase.

Well I'm here to tell you that's bullshit. "To be honest" is an enormously useful, perfectly respectful phrase that conveys a definite message and says absolutely nothing about the character of the speaker.

Human conversation is full of artful deception. All of it. All the time. Most of it is benign. When someone says "How are you?", and you say "Doin' just fine Dave." it is understood that you elected not to give a full, detailed reply. Both parties are fine with that. The question was merely a greeting, and the response was just an acknowledgement. That's it. When the wife says "How do I look in these pants?" and you say "I'm not sure I like that style on you", you are choosing not to say "You look like a cow."

Every interaction we participate in has a certain amount of this. We sugarcoat. We spare each other's feelings. We hype up. We put a spin on our message. We highball. We lowball. We use euphamism. We temper, we boast, we use modesty or arrogance - depending on circumstance. We deflect, we downplay, we shift the focus, we exaggerate, we flatter, we console - all of it is to some various degree an acting job. We do not, absolutely do not use pure honesty all the time. Anyone who did try to offer total honesty all the time would be some kind of social outcast.

This is why the phrase "To be honest" is so useful. It alerts the listener that a bullshit-free opinion is about to follow, in a situation where bullshit would normally be employed. It doesn't mean that all bullshit is necessarily bad, or that in generally I am an untrustworthy person - it simply means that I am about to give you a fully truthful, unvarnished opinion. Many people do not even want to hear a fully truthful opinion, and the phrase "To be honest" gives them a second or two to tense up for the blow. It's a phrase that encourages you to pay close attention, to listen in. It advertises the arrival of a meaningful message. It does all of this in three simple words.

And it's particularly useful in a business environment where massaged and sugarcoated opinions are the norm. In my job, I'm expected to be optimistic in marketing, pessimistic to the top brass, and realistic to operations. The boss doesn't want to hear "to be honest"? He doesn't think that these aren't useful distinctions to make? If he asks me how sales are doing for the quarter, I can use A) "We'll get there, boss.", or B) "With a little luck, we can make quota." or C) "To be honest, I'm worried about making quota if that last contract falls through." All three responses are actually quite truthful. It depends on context. If he comes into my office with his shirt sleeves rolled up, closes my door and sits down, I'm going to use C. If he asks my opinion during a meeting where he's going around the table, it might be B. If he's walking through the office giving a tour to the board of directors, stops at my desk and introduces me, then asks, you better believe it will be A.

This is life. This is about the delicacy of using the right words in the right situations. So when I use C, how do you think I feel when I get rebuked for the implied dishonesty?

To be honest, the people who correct you when you start a sentence this way and rebuke you for the lies are deeply confused jackasses. Anyone who gives you a hard time for "To be honest" is saying that every conversation should be bullshit free. That is delusional. It takes a special pair of balls to correct people mid-sentence on their choice of words, and so if you're going to do it you should probably make sure you have a valid point, and are not simply advertising your lack of intelligence.