— Say the name “Ben Affleck,” and chances are you’ll get at least three distinct descriptions in response:
Wonder boy Oscar-winning screenwriter, along with Boston bud Matt Damon.
Celebrity boy-toy to J. Lo and star of big-budget Hollywood dreck.
Respected auteur of intelligent crime dramas and devoted family man.
The fact that Affleck is only 38 and has time to reinvent himself a few more times suggests one of the more remarkable stories in the entertainment business. Certainly there have been many stars who climbed back from a career abyss to rediscover paydirt; in fact, it’s an essential element of a long-established, formulaic narrative.
But Affleck’s return to prominence after a period of prominent stumbles is particularly striking. This week he hits theaters in “The Town,” a taut crime thriller set in his hometown of Boston that he directed and co-wrote, and in which he also stars. “The Town” is his second effort as a feature film director after 2007’s “Gone Baby Gone,” an adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel that generated brawny reviews for Affleck and kicked open new doors.
“The thing about Ben that’s so amazing is that he’s so confident, so at peace with himself,” noted Basil Iwanyk, one of the producers of “The Town.”
“He’s very happy where he is in his life. He’s got a great family, a lot of close friends. I feel like the world beat him up a bit. I think he’s coming back in a big way.”
When the world takes some shots at you, it’s one thing. When it happens in Hollywood, that’s quite another.
In 1998, Affleck and writing partner Damon won an Academy Award for penning “Good Will Hunting.” But that did not simply represent one stupendous debut in the biz. Affleck had toiled for several years as an actor, grabbing small roles in films like “School Ties” and “Dazed and Confused,” and fatter ones in pictures like Kevin Smith’s “Mallrats” and later “Chasing Amy.”
Affleck and Damon both starred in “Good Will Hunting,” which inflated their mojo as bankable actors. While Damon’s road from there took him to highbrow projects like “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “All the Pretty Horses,” Affleck skidded off into some forgettable fare, most notably “Pearl Harbor,” “Daredevil” and “Gigli.”
It isn’t completely accurate to say that all of his choices during that time were of the head-scratching variety; “Changing Lanes” in 2002, for instance, with Samuel L. Jackson, was a well-received and underrated film. But Affleck appeared in enough regrettable outings that, combined with “Bennifer,” his grotesquely magnified relationship with Jennifer Lopez, he became that unfortunate figure in Hollywood: an insider who is an outcast.
“I think Affleck veered off track when he went from actor to celebrity,” explained Elizabeth Weitzman, film critic for the New York Daily News. “You can’t really blame him. Plenty of young actors — not to mention twentysomething Oscar winners — buy into their own hype, or simply assume they have to become the stars the media wants them to be.
“The truth is, though, Affleck may never have been cut out for superstardom. That public arrogance often came across more like overcompensation. His relationships with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Lopez were extremely high profile, but with the latter in particular, it almost felt like we were watching an imposter try to keep up.”
As a result, Affleck shut it down for a while, relatively speaking. He married actress Jennifer Garner in 2005, and the couple has two daughters. He also began choosing his projects more carefully as an actor — his turn as actor George Reeves in the 2006 independent film “Hollywoodland” brought him healthy reviews as well as a Golden Globe nomination — and then he gravitated toward a position behind the camera.
“Gone Baby Gone” brought him accolades and respect, as well as a slew of honors for actress Amy Ryan, including an Academy Award nomination. But he didn’t appear in that film, although another Affleck — brother Casey — was one of its stars.
In “The Town,” which is getting a much wider release — over 2,700 screens and a hearty studio publicity push compared to the 1,700 screens for “Gone Baby Gone” — he not only occupies the role of main character Doug MacRay, he also directed. Iwanyk admitted to some initial trepidation.
“Frankly, the studio and some of the other actors anticipated some issues,” Iwanyk said. “How is he going to act and direct at the same time? But he was a dream.
“He has a generosity of spirit and an empathy for people, and he was accessible to anyone who asked questions. Add to that the fact that he is the king of Boston, he was shooting on the streets of Boston, and he had that added pressure. ... For most directors, when they just shot something, they think it’s genius. So when somebody walks up to them with a note, they think, ‘What could this person possibly have to say to me?’ Ben is just the opposite. Everything he does he assumes he could do better, and when you walk up to him he listens.”
Jeremy Renner went from the sweltering terrain of Jordan, where much of “The Hurt Locker” was filmed, to the friendlier borders of Beantown and “The Town,” in which he appears as MacRay’s short-fused, bank-robbing cohort Jem. The Oscar nominee raved about his experience working with Affleck, and savored the change of scenery.
“This felt so right,” he said. “It was easy. Everybody on the set was lovely. Working with Ben, he sets the tone for the entire set. It was like shooting a short film with a really good buddy of mine.”
“The Town” has been well received at both the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals, and is set to open on Friday. The film doesn’t represent a new day for Affleck, but rather one that has already dawned and is well underway.
Said the New York Daily News’ Weitzman: “Not too long ago, we’d seen too much of this guy. Who would have guessed that, (approaching) 40, Ben Affleck would once again be the one to watch?”