There are no real villains in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea, The A.V. Club’s favorite movie of last year and a major contender at this Sunday’s Academy Awards. The movie is about grief and the way it puts one particularly bereaved man at war with himself, and the rest of the world, regardless of time’s inconsistent ability to heal psychic wounds. The closest thing the movie has to any bad guys enters the narrative only briefly. After Patrick (Lucas Hedges) loses his father early in the film, the will designates his uncle, Lee (Casey Affleck), the aforementioned grieving man, as his guardian. Lee is reluctant to take on this responsibility, especially considering that Patrick’s mother Elise is still alive, although not really in Patrick’s life due to her alcoholism. When the now-sober Elise does reemerge, putting out feelers for the possibility that Patrick might move in with her, Patrick joins her for an awkward lunch with her blandly sweatered fiancé, Jeffrey. Shortly thereafter, Patrick receives an email not from his mother, but from Jeffrey, essentially rescinding the offer while insisting that all future contact with Elise go through him, for the sake of her mental well-being. It’s polite, clearly spoken, and kind of bone-chilling.
Elise and Jeffrey are not necessarily behaving more selfishly than Lee, who also wants to find a way out of custody of his nephew (and goes against his late brother’s wishes by doing so). But the movie spends a lot of time in Lee’s headspace, carefully revealing the pain beneath his surly, mumbling surface. Lonergan allows hints of turmoil between Elise and Jeffrey, presumably related to her struggles with sobriety, but from the movie’s point of view, their neat and well-appointed home that Patrick cannot share seems like a slap in the face.
Elise is played by Gretchen Mol, which tracks with her career’s second act as a bad mom gone supernova with self-interest, rooted in her effective (and, it must be said, fairly off-putting) performance on TV’s Boardwalk Empire. Jeffrey, though, is played by good old Matthew Broderick, so the quietly callous and controlling nature of the character may feel like more of a shock to some audiences. Broderick, a high school classmate and close friend of Lonergan’s, has appeared in all three of his films, never as a lead. In You Can Count On Me, he has a strong and third-billed supporting role, while in Manchester and Margaret, his bit parts are more akin to good-luck charms for his buddy.
Nevertheless, there is a clarity and a consistency to the way Lonergan uses Broderick. He doesn’t appear in a great variety of character-actor guises; all three parts are, to some degree, milquetoast men more reminiscent of his character from Alexander Payne’s Election than the roles that made him famous: the teenage hacker in War Games and, of course, the titular flim-flammer in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Ferris Bueller looms so large in his filmography that when Broderick has been cast as a teacher, as in Election and Margaret, it always feels to some degree like a metatextual move. Yet I’m not sure it should feel that way, because looking at the fullness of Broderick’s career in general and his character-actor parts for Lonergan in particular makes Ferris, not his adult schmucks, feel like the outlier.
That’s backed up by Ferris Bueller’s Day Off itself, in which Broderick manages to seem both exactly like what writer-director John Hughes had in mind for his teenage hero and also bizarrely miscast. Ferris introduces himself to the audience in the midst of a scheme to fake illness and stay home from school so he can (eventually) go on a day trip into Chicago with his girlfriend, Sloan, and his depressed best friend, Cameron. He speaks to the camera conspiratorially as he goes about the business of deceiving his parents and school administrators. Yet Broderick doesn’t really sell Ferris as a consummate con artist; the movie’s screenplay does most of that work, having the principal huff and puff about how he’s gonna catch that wily Bueller. Broderick also fails to drive home something else the movie keeps claiming about Ferris: That pretty much everyone at school loves the sweet bejesus out of him. Broderick, while far from unlikable as a performer, pitches Ferris somewhere between cutesy dork and supercilious jerk.
To some degree, this isn’t Broderick’s fault. His take on Ferris probably is what Hughes thought a slick, charming, beloved popular kid is like. Hughes possessed enormous sensitivity as a filmmaker, and it’s easy to see why his movies have been elevated above more hormonal, less nuanced teen pictures. But some of his weaker teen movies, like Ferris Bueller, pay lip service to that emotional side while celebrating a bland version of the status quo (as in the supposedly feel-good sequence where hundreds of Chicago citizens instantly fall in love with Ferris’ spirited lip-syncing). Though Broderick was well past his teenage years when he filmed Ferris Bueller, he still didn’t have the electric charisma necessary to enliven Hughes’ wan conception of a teenage trickster.
Broderick feels more at home in movies like You Can Count On Me, though Lonergan was far from the first filmmaker to recognize Broderick’s normcore bona fides. Before even the aforementioned Election, Broderick had a run of mainstream studio movies where he played notes ranging from nebbishy befuddlement to nerdy discomfort: The Cable Guy, Addicted To Love, and the 1998 remake of Godzilla, for which he did sort of a poor man’s Jeff Goldblum routine. But the only good movie in that pre-Election bunch trades on the spectacle of Jim Carrey absolutely steamrolling his co-star, while Election necessitates Broderick not just playing kind of a dork, but indulging in self-deception leading to a downfall nearly as spectacular as possible for a mild-mannered Midwestern history teacher (short of engaging in the kind of teacher-student affair that fells his colleague early in the film).
In You Can Count On Me, Broderick plays a guy not so unlike the pre-disgrace version of Election’s Jim McAllister. He lacks McAllister’s crucial desire to be liked, the flip side being that he lies to himself less frequently. Brian, a bank manager in western New York, makes fastidiously mundane workplace demands about the color schemes of computer-monitor displays, and eventually cheats on his pregnant wife. (In Election, he cheats on his wife as they’re attempting to get pregnant.) Lonergan introduces the character slowly, in a series of scenes opposite Sammy (Laura Linney), one of Brian’s employees. In the first such scene, Brian insists that Sammy can no longer leave work for 15 minutes in the late afternoon to meet her young son’s school bus and drop him off at a babysitter’s.
It’s a boldly unlikable move, and Broderick’s subsequent scenes poke and prod at Sammy’s initial irritation with him. Lonergan keeps the scenes short, often ending them before they reach any kind of satisfying conclusion, and in one case keeps Broderick slightly out of focus in the foreground for most of the interaction. But Lonergan’s tendency to let characters slowly sink into his narratives means that he doesn’t often dismiss them outright. Uptight Brian hangs in there long enough to look more sympathetic, in a scene where he grabs after-work drinks and dinner with Sammy. Outside the office, paperwork-loving Brian appears more self-aware, and Broderick’s charm works at this lower simmer. When Sammy sleeps with him, it makes at least a modicum of sense, even though it’s still a bad idea. A later shot of Brian calling Sammy from a payphone even makes Broderick resemble his old, boyish self (and, for that matter, his peer in boyishness: John Cusack in Say Anything). His talk isn’t as smooth, but the unspoken, possibly unintentional case that Brian makes for himself is more subtly convincing than anything Broderick tries to sell as Ferris.
Eventually, Brian falls well short of maximum Broderick likability, fulfilling the expectations set up in the earliest scenes. He shows little if any guilt about his affair with Sammy, and his instinct when they have a post-relationship conflict is to fire her in a burst of anger. Lonergan may be open-hearted to the characters he writes, but he’s unsparing in observing their hypocrisies or minor corruptions—and the Broderick character’s corruption in Manchester is more insidious. On paper, Jeffrey is just protecting the woman he loves. But from the movie’s vantage, his Christianity belies a lack of interest in helping out someone he should consider a bereaved family member, rather than a threat to his wife’s disease.
Broderick’s part in Margaret isn’t really substantial enough to sustain any moral damage, to himself or to the other characters. But his casting as a school authority again falls more in line with Election than Bueller. Broderick’s character, John, has a short scene where he tries to exert the mildest chastising authority on his student Lisa (Anna Paquin) and her friend when he catches them smoking pot in Central Park before a school event. It doesn’t stick; the best the girls can offer in return is a lightly conciliatory tone, chased by laughter at his faux-casual phrasing (“smoking a jay”) just barely behind his back as he leaves, emphasized with an actual shot of his back.
John’s other key scene, later in the film, finds him losing patience with a student who can’t let go of an alternate reading of a Shakespeare line, denying the interpretation first lightly, then firmly, then irritably, in between sips of orange juice. As in You Can Count On Me, Broderick plays someone who is ultimately ineffectual in a very recognizable, human way. Margaret isn’t about his professional frustrations, and this isn’t the type of slapstick humiliation visited upon Jeffrey Jones in Ferris Bueller; despite the associations, Broderick isn’t being used to ironically play the pompous and bumbling principal now vexed by a charming rebel. But his frustrations are in there nonetheless, woven into the tapestry of the film.
This isn’t necessarily what we expect of our former teen idols (or even our former twentysomethings who successfully played famous teenagers). It’s been years since Broderick was a big movie star, but he is still a well-known quantity and remains a draw on Broadway, which makes the quotidian details of his performances for Lonergan all the more impressive. He seems to truly understand Lonergan’s desire to make drama from real life. As Ferris Bueller, Broderick bookends the movie with a repeated and much-quoted line about how “life moves pretty fast… if you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it.” It’s supposed to be a thoughtful, admirable philosophy, but as an adult it’s hard not to cringe at an 18-year-old doling out life advice. Especially when the world of the movie never seems to move too fast for Bueller, because it largely revolves around him. Adults can be harder to pin down than either the carefree needling of Ferris or the generically depressive Cameron. Broderick’s characters for Lonergan are guys that movies, at least, often miss.