It’s several weeks later now and the global stock market has more or less recovered from the news that Ben Affleck, of all the living human males ergonomically appropriate for cape-wearing, has landed the role of Batman in Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” sequel. And it’s a good thing that the petition campaigns, the hunger strikes and the spate of protesters setting themselves on fire on the White House lawn have died down, as this week another Affleck-starring film gets its roll of the box office dice. “Runner Runner” is Brad Furman’s follow-up to 2011’s surprise hit “The Lincoln Lawyer” which performed the unlikely conjuring trick of jump-starting Matthew McConaughey’s now thriving career rehabilitation. Perhaps Furman will be a similar talisman for Affleck? The vehemence of the hatred for whom we have to say took even us by surprise after that casting announcement.
In honesty, it seems unlikely that “Runner Runner” will do a McConaughey on Affleck’s acting career (his stellar directorial career is a whole ‘nother story, contributing to the slew of paradoxes that make up Affleck’s public image). Not only does the gambling thriller look a little slight, with advance word ranging from "meh" to "ho-hum," but Affleck has in fact, had anything but the same string of middling-to-obnoxious rom-com roles that characterized McConaughey’s pre 2011-run that had him so primed for rediscovery. If anything, what with meaty roles in his self-directed films, Terrence Malick’s “To The Wonder” and issues drama “The Company Men,” Affleck the actor has been on a roll of late. So why is it that the immediate fan consensus that emerged after Warners announced Batfleck, was not just that he wasn’t the right actor for the part, but that by simply showing up on that set he was gonna totally RUIN the film? The Zack Snyder-directed Henry Cavill-starring film? And how chillingly was all of that predicted by Affleck himself in this clip from “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back”?
There’s a mysterious, insidious quality to the hatred of Affleck the actor, which is disproportionate to the number of truly bad performances he’s turned in. And in fact, following a string of three stellar directorial outings -- "Gone Baby Gone," "The Town" and "Argo" -- the haterade once kept chilled and ready for use, had completely dissipated. The current anti-Affleck sentiment feels somewhat left over from an earlier era, juiced now via fanboys who didn't get their casting wishes. In any event, Affleck has long moved on in his career, even if certain corners of the internet haven't.
But with "Runner Runner" coming up , we decided to see it from both sides by rounding up the three best and the three worst Ben Affleck performances -- we’ll leave it up to you to decide if it’s time he came in from the cold.
Worst: “Gigli” (2003)
May as well get it out of the way up front. The blank, unholy surprise of watching “Gigli” nowadays is that it is every bit as putrid as its reputation suggests. And while it’s hard to see how anyone in the whole world could have contended with the awful script and horrible plotting, Affleck does actually plumb depths that mean that as much as it’s a career low point for everyone involved (writer/director Martin Brest, who was behind such touchpoints as “Beverly Hills Cop” and the peerless “Midnight Run” has not directed since), it’s an especially low low for him. The whole endeavor smacks of vanity project, but worse for Affleck, it doesn’t even seem to be his ego that the film is serving. Instead his character is one of the most heinously emasculated ever committed to film, and had us literally squirming in embarrassment at the sheer variety of ways he finds to abase himself before then-paramour Jennifer Lopez. The film may be named after his character, but it’s all about her Ricki, and how awesomely sexy and cool and tough and gorgeous she is (every character makes at least one comment about her beauty and desirability, usually to her beautiful, desirable face), even though she actually does hardly anything. Affleck then, gets to play the lunk-headed nonentity who learns about the vagina’s superiority to the sea-slug-like penis (oh, we wish we were making this shit up) from the lesbian yoga-practicing Ricki as the two of them are thrown together by a small-time hoodlum to babysit the kidnapped mentally handicapped brother (Justin Bartha) of a prosecution witness. And having thus been schooled, his inarticulate, mouthbreathing appeal proves strong enough to “turn” her straight? We just can’t see what Brest was going for here (a low-rent “Mr & Mrs Smith” meets “Rain Man”?) but it’s as plain as Jennifer Lopez that the marble-mouthed idiocy of the pseudo-sexy dialogue is not helped by the bewildering absence of chemistry between the leads. The big irony here is that the idea of Affleck’s smugness and vanity derived largely from this film and this period in his personal life, and yet he could have done with a bit more of both qualities in tackling this role. As it is, it’s not just drivel, it’s embarrassing drivel that is insulting to lesbians, to men, to the mentally handicapped and to anyone watching with a functional pair of eyes.
Best: “Good Will Hunting” (1997)
The best Affleck performances, to our mind, have always been those that somewhat subverted the straight-up lantern-jawed romantic lead that studios courted him for during the middle, fallow period of his career. And early on he actually had a few such interesting roles, from the paddle-happy Fred O’Bannion in Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused,” to Holden in frequent collaborator Kevin Smith’s “Chasing Amy” (the first Affleck character to be in love with a lesbian, but not the last). But best of all was the relatively small role he and writing partner Matt Damon earmarked for him in “Good Will Hunting.” While the film is ostensibly about the transformative relationships that Damon’s Will forms with his shrink (Robin Williams) and his different-class girlfriend (Minnie Driver), the real heart of it comes from Will’s attachment to his lifelong friends and to his blue-collar background, personified by Affleck’s Chuckie. And Affleck is extraordinarily good in the part, the bluff but insecure guy who, underneath all the working-class bravado genuinely wants what’s best for his friend, even if it means he’ll lead a life that Chuckie will have little access to. In fact, it’s remarkable that in a film that has Robin Williams giving it the full ‘Dead Poet,’ and Damon doing reluctant-genius-meeting-his-dream-girl, it’s Affleck’s climactic speech, full of the warring instincts of jealousy and pride and loyalty that make up a really great friendship, that will break your heart. Of course, the screenplay won Damon and Affleck a screenwriting Oscar, after which Affleck got his first taste of backlash, with accusations that William Goldman ghostwrote it (which Goldman himself definitively denied). Nonetheless, it’s an early example of Affleck being a lot more than a pretty face, not just as regards off-camera talent, but also onscreen, when he’s given a role that allows his character some depth.