Twice now I’ve walked into a movie on a dry cold Seattle day and then emerged to become immediately enchanted by a change in the weather — to be specific, heavy snowfall. And both times, the discovery of the weather made me wish I’d spent the time wandering in a winter wonderland instead of sitting in the theater enduring more than two hours of Emotion Over Imagination.

The first time? Well, it was Titanic. If that blows my moviegoing credibility with you, I’m sorry… you might want to stop here. I admit it, I never really liked Titanic, even though it would go on to win a bunch of Oscars. It was so rigged for easy pathos, calibrated to affirm every adolescent impulse of the heart (that is, the hormones).

manchester-posterThis time, the movie is, again, an Oscar front-runner — even though it lacks the big special effects, the sex appeal of a marquee-name “it”-girl and “it”-boy of the moment, and the crowd-pleasing “lovers in a dangerous time” hook.

Manchester by the Sea is a much more grownup movie, about adults dealing with unfathomable tragedy and grief, and trying to figure out how to fulfill their responsibilities in the mess that the world makes of their lives. It comes from Kenneth Lonergan, a writer and director I greatly admire who has made two masterful films already — You Can Count On Me and Margaret. It arrives on waves of festival buzz. And I walked in, on a cold Seattle evening, eager to see what all the fuss was about.

Then I walked out into a snowstorm, and my film-induced funk was immediately erased by joy.

Maybe the snow sparked my imagination, but I couldn’t help imagining how Manchester by the Sea might have become a better film than it is. Call it Moodslumper By the Sad.

For example, this would’ve been a lot more fun if Kyle Chandler had been playing an older version of Ben Affleck from Good Will Hunting and Casey were reprising his role from that film. He seems like a grownup version of that bone-headed kid who was capable of doing unspeakable things with his big brother’s baseball glove (a scene I like to call “Mitt Wrongly”).

© 2016 Amazon Studios
© 2016 Amazon Studios

But never mind: I don’t mean to malign Casey Affleck. He’s fine here as a human bruise, staggering around like someone has thrown a brick through the back of his head and now it weighs him down wherever he walks.

In fact, every fine actor in this ensemble delivers, including Chandler, Michelle Williams, and Lucas Hedges. But, for the first time with a Lonergan film, the heaviness weighing on everything stifles the movie. I just never feel enough fight in it: It’s just Hard Life Guy Suffers Hard Things After What We Suspect Must Have Been Other Hard Things, And Then Oh My Yes He Really Really Did Suffer Other Hard Things, And Now I Can Only Guess That More Hard Things Are Coming. This lacks the enthralling literary-fiction complexity of Margaret and the compelling characterization and comedy of You Can Count On Me.

And Lonergan’s own appearance — which remains a highlight of his first film — drop-kicks me out of the movie this time, as it all but confirms my suspicions that this is a movie in which an artist is Working Through Things. (Affleck looks, and even has some of the mannerisms, of a younger Lonergan… so it’s weird to see Lonergan show up in person and yell at what I think must represent a younger version of himself. Cathartic for him, maybe… but not for us.)

© 2016 Amazon Studios
© 2016 Amazon Studios

Here’s the thing: I just wrapped up teaching a college fiction-writing class, and I spent the quarter trying to pull the writers back from always going for broke with those BIG LOUD SCENES in which teenagers clash with the irresponsible, hard-drinking, hard-swearing, prone-to-drunken-violence adults who are raising them. (As far as I know, none of these students were writing from experience on this, so why the attraction to such ugly scenarios?) Maybe I’m a little burned out on shock-and-awe domestic eruptions like this; I admit that my lenses may be smudged.

But this film, constantly underlining its pathos with big sad classical music, never takes hold for me.

Okay, one scene grabbed me by the throat: It is, of course, the scene pictured on the poster, in which Michelle Williams gets her big moment. And it works because, well… Michelle Williams. But even that scene gets spoiled by a terrible, terrible edit in which her mouth is clearly not saying the words that we’re hearing.

I recently revisited Tom McCarthy’s The Station Agent — a comedy focused on three bruised and disheartened characters (four if you count Michelle Williams’ adorable librarian) — and found it far more affecting than this. It allows its characters to play a wide range of notes, to have lives that take on poetically suggestive qualities, and to surprise us. Hard as their lives are, I always want to go back and revisit their stories to explore the imaginative play of the filmmaking. I think I’m one-and-done with Manchester.

Oh, well… I offer these hasty first impressions and ask you to receive them with heavy grains of snow-melting salt. A lot of my favorite film critics are really loving this, so I’m going to shut up now and let you decide for yourself whether to descend into this solemn, sullen story of sadness. Seriously — it may speak to you. I wish it had spoken to me. Instead, what I’ll remember about the evening was how that shopping mall looked in the snow, and what a relief that was.

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