Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, left) has a difficult relationship with nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) in Manchester by the Sea.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, left) has a difficult relationship with nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) in Manchester by the Sea.

As a critic, I’ve always been amused when dissenting readers ask the clichéd question, “Did we even see the same movie?” So it’s ironic to realize I’m having the same response to reviews of Manchester by the Sea.

It’s not just that many critics seem to love the film more than I do. It’s that they seem to find meaning in the story that I don’t.

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me), Manchester centers on Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a sullen loner whose life changes when he’s appointed to serve as guardian to his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). It’s his reaction to this situation over which many critics and I part company.

Some feel he becomes transformed by his new responsibility. Frankly, though, I don’t see it. He does what he has to do, but in the end he’s the same person he was in the beginning.

And who is that? Lonergan sketches his portrait of the damaged man by jumping back and forth between the present and the past. In the present, Lee is surly and withdrawn, prone to striking out against those around him. In the past, he lived in the titular Massachusetts town with wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and their three small children.

Obviously, something happened to change him, and the film takes its time explaining what that something was. But when the truth finally emerges Lonergan pulls out all the stops, assaulting us with slow-motion images set to the familiar, dirge-like tones of Tomaso Albinoni’s “Adagio in G Minor.” It amounts to overkill, especially in a film that, like its protagonist, tends to keep its emotions firmly in check.

Other than this overwrought scene, Lonergan takes a low-key approach to the familiar subject of grief. His script circles around the topic but seldom meets it head on. We see Lee tamping down on his feelings and occasionally letting them out in inappropriate ways, but he never talks about what’s actually weighing on his mind.

It’s an interesting approach, and the cast makes it work—for a while. Affleck’s Lee is tautly coiled and self-contained, and Hedges gives a natural performance as the nephew adapting to changes over which he has little control. As Randi, the character most in touch with her emotions, Williams is superb.

It’s only after Lee has rejected multiple opportunities to deal with his pain that the story begins to test our patience. For me, the breaking point came during a brief scene when he’s gazing out the window at the seaside town where his life was turned upside down. For a second, I had hope he would finally come to terms with his inner demons. Then the thought hit me: “No, he’s not. He’s going to put his fist through the window.”

Guess what he does.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Ruthless power broker takes on the gun lobby

From a promising film with a disappointing ending, we turn to an uneven film with an entertainingly surprising ending.

Miss Sloane stars Jessica Chastain as Elizabeth Sloane, a high-powered D.C. lobbyist who prides herself on staying 10 steps ahead of the competition. Her skills are stretched to the limit when she abruptly leaves a prominent firm and takes on an issue that seems perpetually doomed to failure: gun control.

Director John Madden (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera imbue the tale with all manner of behind-the-scenes arm-twisting and double-dealing. That’s caused some to compare it to trashy TV fare like Scandal.

Then again, we have to suspect there’s more than a little truth to a scenario in which a prominent congressmen (John Lithgow) is pressured to do his bosses’ bidding in return for political favors. To quote Sloane’s favorite slogan, cynicism is merely the absence of naïveté.

Through it all, Chastain’s Sloane chases her goal with the same kind of zeal Chastain’s Maya devoted to chasing Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty. The main difference is that Sloane fortifies herself with an unhealthy regimen of uppers and relieves her tension by buying sex from a sympathetic gigolo (Jake Lacy).

She also allows her ruthless tactics to hurt and even endanger an unsuspecting co-worker (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Then again, ruthlessness appears to be a lobbyist’s job requirement, as George Dupont (Sam Watterson) proves when he sics a congressional committee on his talented former employee.

Though its twists and machinations sometimes strain credibility, Miss Sloane’s cynical depiction of Washington is, unfortunately, all too believable.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

Manchester by the Sea and Miss Sloane (both rated R) open Friday (Dec. 9).





Jessica Chastain plays the titular lobbyist in Miss Sloane.

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