Ben Affleck Is a Genius

He made us proud with Good Will Hunting, and embarrassed us with pretty much everything he’s done since. Now, with his directorial debut, the Boston-set Gone Baby Gone, catching plenty of early buzz, it’s time to admit—maybe we’ve been too hard on the guy.

For years, I’ve been telling people about The Time I Saw Ben Affleck.

I was at the gym, trudging listlessly along on an elliptical trainer, when out of the corner of my eye I observed a tall, dark-haired man in an orange T-shirt mounting the machine next to mine. My dominant emotion, at that moment, was mild annoyance: The club’s cardio area was almost entirely empty, and I’ve always believed that unacquainted exercisers should afford each other at least a little personal space, a buffer of, say, one unoccupied treadmill between them, if at all possible, for the sake of politeness.

But I didn’t think too much more about it until my roommate B. appeared approximately five minutes later, fresh from an oddly abbreviated circuit-training session, and proceeded to lean all over my console, asking an endless series of inane questions and casting lots of intense glances at the adjacent machine. Even then, I didn’t turn my head; I just figured that the guy next to me was exercising in a manner that my roommate for whatever reason found riveting.

It was only later, after we’d left the gym and returned to our apartment, that I learned of my brush with greatness.

“We just saw Ben Affleck,” B. informed our next-door neighbor.

“We did?” I asked, incredulous. “Where?”

“At the gym,” he said, speaking slowly. “You were right next to him. You seriously didn’t notice?”

No, I hadn’t. I’d spent, it seems, the better part of an hour in very close proximity to one of Boston’s biggest celebrities—a man who was, back then in 1999, still thought of as something of a golden boy—and I didn’t even see him at all.

And that brings me, in a roundabout way, to my point: I’m not sure anyone ever really sees Ben Affleck. Not then, and not now. Sure, he’s been in our faces for what feels like forever—at the movies, in the tabloids, stumping for politicians, partying with strippers, in rehab, out of rehab, rooting for his darling Red Sox—but he’s simply too famous. In short order, he blew right past celebrity and became a caricature—of some oafy frat boy, at once endearing and entirely pitiable. And the real actor inside (to say nothing of the person) was rendered all but invisible.

To find out how Affleck first began his acting career, go on to the next page…

SOME PEOPLE BELIEVE THAT in order for an actor to be considered truly great, he should be able to disappear into his characters à la Marlon Brando. (Or, if you prefer a more contemporary example, Edward Norton, who was positively chameleon-like in Primal Fear. And Fight Club. And American History X.) But that sort of metamorphosis has never really been an option for Ben Affleck. Instead, the Cambridge-bred 35-year-old’s best performances—and, yes, there have been some rather good ones—have tended to melt away into his own outsize persona.

This is a function, no doubt, of the fashion in which Affleck became famous. He’s been acting professionally for almost a quarter of a century, having gotten his start back in 1984 on a corny, classroom-friendly educational series called The Voyage of the Mimi, and spending his late teens and early twenties working fairly steadily in Hollywood—which is certainly more than 99.99 percent of aspiring thespians can say for themselves—even if he did tend to get typecast as a jock (1992’s School Ties), a bully (1993’s Dazed and Confused), or a jerk (1995’s Mallrats as well as, come to think of it, School Ties and Dazed and Confused). But it wasn’t until he and best friend and fellow Cambridge kid Matt Damon wrote a script—and sold it not once, but twice, and ultimately for a cool $600,000—that he became Ben Affleck, Major Movie Star.

Of course, it was Damon who got the flashy title role (it’s never been totally clear whether the two pals possessed a keen sense of their own respective strengths and limitations, or if Affleck simply lost a coin toss), but the legend we’ve all come to know was plenty big enough for the both of them: Living together in a crappy Los Angeles apartment, the boys were frustrated by the way the industry perceived them—Affleck has recalled being repeatedly told that, at 6 foot 3, he was just “too tall” to be a leading man—so they resolved to make for themselves the movie that they wanted to be in. They banged out draft after draft after draft, slowly taking their script from silly-sounding, high-stakes caper to serious coming-of-age drama, eventually producing a project good enough to attract the interest of both Robin Williams and the genius art-house director Gus Van Sant. They’d gambled, basically, and they won, big: fame, money, opportunities, and a pair of matching gold statuettes to commemorate the fact that, at 25 and 27, these two college dropouts had somehow managed to write the best original screenplay of the year. Their coming-up was, in short, flat-out irresistible—local kids made good writ large across a 50-foot screen. That they’d had the sense to set their film in Boston, making liberal use of beloved locations like the Public Garden, only helped.

But over the past few years, things for Affleck have, well, fallen off a bit. And now, exactly a decade after he first made his name with Good Will Hunting, he is once again a struggling artist, albeit a hugely wealthy one, in the position of having to hunt—both in his hometown and in Hollywood—for a little goodwill. This month, he releases his directorial debut: a Dorchester-set drama called Gone Baby Gone adapted—by Affleck and yet another old Cambridge friend, Aaron Stockard (whose only previous film credits, according to the Internet Movie Database, are good ol’ Good Will Hunting, on which he served as a Boston-based production assistant, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, on which he assisted “Mr. Damon”)—from the 1998 novel of the same name by Mystic River author Dennis Lehane.

If nothing else, the film should finally silence all those naysayers who label Affleck “the dumb one” in the Matt-Ben duo. Because say what you will about his decision-making skills, which have perhaps demonstrated themselves to be slightly lacking in the past, especially when it comes to choosing big-budget projects and big-name paramours: The man is not a dunderhead. Every move he’s made—okay, with a few exceptions—has made sense in its own way. In fact, if you look at it right, it could be argued that Ben Affleck is kind of a genius.

Go on to the next page to find out just what makes Gigli such a bad movie…

BEFORE I COULD BEGIN TO make said argument, I knew that it would be necessary to watch the two films that—fairly or not—constitute, in many minds, the actor’s professional nadir. So I steeled myself for the steely judgment of my local independent video-store clerk and headed out to collect 2003’s Gigli and 2004’s Jersey Girl, the “romantic” “comedies” (scare-quotes completely intentional) that set Affleck on his current path. My only hope was that I’d make it out of there without comment.

No such luck.

“Big Ben Affleck fan, huh?” the clerk asked, raising his eyebrows as he went off to fetch my selections from the back of the store.

“Um, sort of,” I said. Then, unable to let it lie: “It’s for work.”

“Ahhhh,” he replied, grinning in a way that I read as indication of his happiness at understanding why such a clearly cool customer as me would be renting such totally uncool flicks. More likely, I realized later, he simply didn’t believe me. After all, even his job doesn’t require him to watch Gigli. “Because I was going to say, these probably aren’t his best.”


“Yeah. There’s definitely better Ben Affleck movies.”

“Like what?” I asked, suddenly wondering if I was in the company of an actual Affleck aficionado. “Which ones are your favorites?”

Whoa. Too far. He took a step back, as though I’d pulled out a gun. “I don’t exactly have a favorite,” he said carefully. “But I think Ben’s better in small doses. Like, he’s pretty good in some of Kevin Smith’s movies.”

It’s true: Affleck has been in every single movie that Smith has ever directed (with the exception of Clerks, the independent auteur’s ultra-low-budget, nobody-packed 1994 debut), and his good-humored presence in these ensemble films is enduring proof that the actor has never taken himself too seriously, even at the height of his success. What this clerk didn’t seem to know is that Jersey Girl, despite the incongruous—and mercifully brief—presence of Jennifer Lopez, is a Kevin Smith film as well. And as I found out a few hours after exiting the video store, Affleck is pretty decent in that one, too.

Gigli, though, is truly atrocious, every bit as bad as you’ve heard. The plot, as you probably don’t recall, revolves around a couple of at-odds hired killers played by Lopez and Affleck, forced to work together to kidnap a federal prosecutor’s brain-damaged twentysomething brother. The film’s only dramatic tension arrives 90-plus minutes in, when the two kooky criminals realize that they’re too soft-hearted to harm the boy, who is, by the way, a devoted Baywatch fan. (Now that’s what you call character development.) Oh, and Lopez’s hit woman is supposedly a lesbian, but given that her stated sexual orientation barely interferes with her ultimately getting it on with her hunky partner, that plot point serves only to remind the watcher of Gigli’s utter inferiority to Affleck’s similarly themed 1997 film, Chasing Amy.

Still, it wasn’t Gigli that almost killed Ben Affleck’s career—it was the absurdly high-profile real-life romance that accompanied it. (That and the marketing purpose to which that romance was so clumsily put. “Part of the fun of watching Gigli,” as insanely optimistic Revolution Studios boss Joe Roth told Vanity Fair at the time, “is deciding where and when they started falling in love.” Um, sure.) Affleck didn’t seem to understand the problem. After all, he’d begun dating an equally famous actress, Gwyneth Paltrow, shortly after Good Will Hunting premiered, and nobody seemed to mind. In fact, their first appearance together on screen, in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, had resulted in an Oscar for her, and for him a nomination for an American Comedy Award for funniest supporting actor.

Find out more about why Affleck chose this career strategy…

But then, Ben and Gwyn were never seen cruising around L.A. in a Bentley. They never announced their engagement in an embarrassingly cloying Primetime Live interview with Diane Sawyer (and then promptly called off the wedding). And they certainly never starred in a music video that featured a bunch of fake paparazzi photographing him as he patted her famous bum.

Of course, even before l’affaire Bennifer, the public had begun to lose its patience with the actor, who’d long since ceded the underdog persona that had proved so appealing in favor of starring in a string of dodgy hits and bad would-be blockbusters: There was Armageddon, his relatively understated play for action-star status, and Forces of Nature, a perfectly fine romantic comedy with Sandra Bullock, which were succeeded in 2000 by the mediocre heist flick Reindeer Games and the mediocre relationship drama Bounce. These were followed in 2001 by the abysmal Pearl Harbor (in which Affleck was upstaged, depending on which critic you listened to, by either costar Josh Hartnett’s better looks or Kate Beckinsale’s impossibly white teeth) and Daddy and Them, which was so bad it went straight to video; and in 2002, the abortive Jack Ryan reboot The Sum of All Fears.

“I kinda see my current position like this: Here’s your five minutes in the toy store, so you gotta do all the good movies you can before Chuck Woolery rings the bell,” Affleck said in the middle of that run, by way of explaining his career strategy. It would have been an unassailable plan, if only he had managed to ensure that all the movies he made were, indeed, good.

Affleck’s vocational choices may have made him the butt of more than a few jokes—he even made some himself in a self-mocking appearance in Smith’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, opposite old pal Damon, who after going a very different route was recently named by Forbes as Hollywood’s most bankable box-office star. But if you really consider the context, it’s clear that Affleck had no way of knowing how badly things were going to go.

It’s hard for any actor to accurately predict the quality of the finished product based on a screenplay, and given Affleck’s experience, having seen his own script go from bubkes to brilliant in just a few rewrites, it had to be even more difficult for him. Most of his much lampooned projects were directed by either well-regarded Hollywood veterans or critically acclaimed up-and-comers: Reindeer Games was h
elmed by the legendary John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate), Bounce by Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex), and Daddy and Them was fellow actor-turned-screenwriter Billy Bob Thornton’s attempt at living up to his career-changing masterpiece, Sling Blade. And even in the midst of all these big-name, big-budget busts, Affleck was still turning in solid, self-aware performances in a bunch of smaller, smarter, better films, like Dogma and Boiler Room. Given that he all but disappeared from the big screen after 2003’s Daredevil (his well–intentioned and, dare I say it, well-acted attempt at launching his own superhero franchise) and that same year’s not-bad sci-fi action flick Paycheck, it seems likely Affleck realized a break was in order. And that decision to step back, more than anything he’d done in the previous years, was a clear indicator of the savvy we assumed he’d either lost, or never had. When the moment called for it, he knew exactly when to exit the stage.

Learn more about Affleck’s career rehabilitation…

AND SO AFFLECK BEGAN his career rehabilitation by rehabilitating his personal life, which was, of course, the root of the problem. He and J.Lo split, and a little less than a year later he fell for Jennifer Garner, a former costar whose lack of tabloid draw makes her the next best thing to marrying a “civilian.” They had a baby, the adorable Violet, and, supported by a seemingly happy home life, he began to plot his return to form. First up was Hollywoodland, last year’s little-seen but critically acclaimed drama, for which Affleck received his best reviews ever and was nominated for a Golden Globe for supporting actor. As George Reeves, the star of the 1950s-era serial Adventures of Superman, he delivers a performance that is heartfelt, nimble, charming, and more than a little gut-wrenching: Watching him, you can’t help but wonder how completely he identified with his character, a well-known but not particularly well-regarded actor who felt hemmed in by his own fame.

Which brings us up to Affleck’s current gambit: Turns out that, like many a star before him, what he really wanted to do was direct. He’s spent much of the past two years hard at work on Gone Baby Gone, his eagerly anticipated drama about a private detective (played by Casey Affleck) in search of a missing four-year-old girl, set to premiere on October 19. It’s important to note that Affleck, who does not appear in the film, didn’t cast his baby brother as a stand-in for himself, Woody Allen–style. Instead, Casey, far slighter than the former Sexiest Man Alive, inhabits the character of Patrick Kenzie in a way that makes it impossible to imagine Ben in the same role: In one scene, the P.I. responds to a bulked-up bartender’s not-particularly-friendly introduction—“Hi, I’m Big Dave”—with a quick “I’m Medium Patrick.” (Casey’s still-youthful appearance is also adroitly and explicitly addressed. A policeman played by Ed Harris, annoyed by Kenzie’s questions, tells him that if he has nothing specific to contribute to the case, he should “go back to [his] Harry Potter book.”) While it may seem on the surface like simple nepotism, the decision to cast Casey at all was a pretty canny one. Far less famous than his big brother, and therefore far less weighed down by audience prejudice and expectation, the actor excels in the film’s central role. (And he’s not the only heretofore-underestimated locally grown talent to appear—and shine—in Gone Baby Gone: Rapper Slaine plays a vigilante drug dealer, and John Ashton, best known for his work in 1980s comedies like Beverly Hills Cop and Midnight Run, could launch a little comeback of his own based on his potent portrayal of a seasoned Boston cop.)

Despite a tricky plot—and a story that completely switches direction approximately 60 minutes in, only to shift again before the film ends—the pacing never lags, and Affleck’s adeptness as a director reflects skills he acquired in his years on the other side of the camera. On the whole, Affleck’s directorial debut has more in common with Good Will Hunting than his more maligned recent work. It’s a deeply moving drama that deals with the dark consequences of the noblest human emotions, and, if not quite a straight-up masterpiece, it’s a truly great flick, a twisty mystery that depicts Boston in an even-handed—if not always flattering—light.

If Gone Baby Gone launches a new career phase for Affleck, and it should (an early review in Variety called his directorial effort “conversation-starting” and “thoughtfully lensed”), he seems determined to not let it be sullied by repeating the mistakes of his past. In August, he told Entertainment Weekly that he “probably won’t be in giant studio movies” from here on out. “I’m not that into them,” he added, perhaps unconsciously mirroring the title of his next project, the big-screen adaptation of 2004’s self-help bestseller He’s Just Not That Into You. It’s an ensemble cast, reported to include Jennifer Aniston, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Connelly, and Scarlett Johansson, so it seems safe to assume that this will be a smaller part for the star. Which is good. Because as much as Affleck already deserves more respect than he gets, it might not be a bad idea for him to play it cool just a little bit longer. As any remaining haters will be the first to point out, Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck’s best movie in years—the one that could well give his hometown cause to reconsider how it sees him—is a movie that Ben Affleck isn’t even in.