Blu-ray Review: Manchester By the Sea

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Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester By the Sea falls squarely into the "life sucks and then you die" school of storytelling. Absurdly marketed as a "comedy," Manchester is unbearably heavy stuff about people who can't seem to catch a break. The acting is uniformly excellent. Despite Oscar nominees Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams getting most of the attention, the also-nominated Lucas Hedges delivers the most startling work (not just because he's the least familiar of the leads, although that doesn't hurt). But this critics' darling, while solidly crafted, is a 'slice of life' that just sort of hangs in the air. Given the tragedies faced by these characters, it's only natural to be moved while watching (the overbearing music often forcibly cues us when to cry). But after all is said and done, Manchester is something of a shaggy-dog story about a few individuals who've been dealt an exceedingly crappy hand.

It's difficult to discuss the plot developments in depth without spoiling the very important "twist," of sorts. Lee (Affleck) is a handyman who glumly shuffles through life. He drinks, he tends towards self punishment, and eschews come-ons by attractive women. We don't really know why initially, but there's clearly something unsettling lurking beneath his "who gives a crap" vibe. Then his brother dies. Joe (Kyle Chandler) had a heart condition and it was just a matter of time. But he leaves behind a teenage son, Patrick (Hedges), whose mother Elise (Gretchen Mol) is more or less out of the picture. Per Joe's will, Lee is named as Patrick's guardian. This is unwanted by Lee, but he's a decent guy who loved his brother. He figures there is no viable option other than to try making the situation work. 

rsz_manchester_by_the_sea_lucas_hedges.jpg And that's really all one need know going into Manchester. It's a character piece with so little conventional "plot" that revealing much of anything is too much. Yes, we eventually learn the cause behind Lee's depression. We also meet Lee's ex-wife Randi (Williams), who has suffered emotionally for the same reasons as Lee. Williams and Affleck only share a few scenes, but they are electrifying together. Therein lies the main reason I am confounded by the overwhelming, near-unanimous praise being heaped upon Manchester. Like so many films, this one is male-centric. We don't get to spend enough time with Randi (or even Elise, for that matter) to balance out the story. Why should we only be allowed to care about Lee and Patrick? Even Patrick's girlfriends (he's something of a womanizer, even at his tender age) get short shrift. Manchester is a film about grieving sons, fathers, brothers, and uncles. It's too bad Lonergan didn't see fit to let the women in his film receive an equal share—or at the very least more than glorified cameos. 
manchester by the sea michelle williams.jpg As it is, Lonergan has clearly made a choice regarding which characters to hang his story around. If you can accept that choice and ignore the fact that we barely get a glimpse of the womens' psyches, Manchester manages to push the right buttons for the most part. While the cast seems at times to be working through drama class exercises (of an admitttedly very high order, but still), the acting is often genuinely emotional. A Matthew Broderick cameo (as Elise's holy-rolling fiance) is a brief distraction. Again, it's Lucas Hedges who stands out with the subtlest work, managing to make the cocky Patrick likable and repellent at the same time—no small feat.

Lionsgate's excellent Blu-ray technical presentation is accompanied by audio commentary courtesy of director Kenneth Lonergan, a 16-minute 'making of' featurette called "Emotional Lives," and about five minutes of deleted scenes.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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