The Modest Case for Ben Affleck as Unwitting Chronicler of Millennium’s End
(originally published on The Junior Varsity, July 2011)
They won’t need carbon-dating to peg the pop culture of the 1990s.
The movies. Maybe you remember the poster for Singles: Bridget Fonda in a hat, Matt Dillon with long hair and a guitar, plonked on a park bench in burgeoning Seattle without a care in the world. Winona Ryder and Janeane Garofalo in Reality Bites. Janeane Garofalo in general. Memories flooding back yet?
Maybe music. Even just the album covers bring you back. Nirvana’s Nevermind. The Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Green Day’s Basket Case. These are iconic. VH1’s probably already done the retrospective.
But icons have their limitations. We’ll gladly, glibly sum up the ‘60s as the era of hippies, ‘70s was disco and discord—but our formative years were different, they were special. (Weren’t they?) We’re comfortable with the four-line Billy Joel summary of our parents’ decades, and we've already given up on treating the ‘80s seriously—
—but, oh, the ‘90s… well, we lived through those times. They were complicated. They do not need an icon. They need a storyteller. Enter Ben Affleck, who, by fate or design, saw the age through from promising beginnings to its defining moments, before an entire decade gave up and said “whatever.” The ten feature films below are not merely the finest flicks from one man in one decade. They are the story of a time that time forgot.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992, dir. Fran Rubel Kuzui)
The handsome young man headlining this film is not Ben Affleck, but Luke Perry, a king of the ‘90s if ever there was one. It will be difficult to explain Luke Perry to future generations, for he was a person of his time and of his looks, and both tend to fade.
Buffy herself would move past this film to well-documented greener pastures later in the decade, and make something mighty from unpromising beginnings. Similarly, Affleck, appearing uncredited as Basketball Player #10, had a destiny awaiting him. But not yet, and not here.
School Ties (1992, dir. Robert Mandel)
A handsome enough prestige project. Affleck holds a supporting role below Matt Damon, Chris O’Donnell and top-billed Brendan Fraser, making a record of a special time when you could get all these people for cheap and Encino Man would star. It’s the kind of movie we’ll catch on TV when we’re old, and spend the whole time murmuring, “My God, he was so young.”
Affleck plays Chesty Smith—an anti-Semite and a prick, like most folks in the dramatis personae. “Everything about that was embarrassing for me,” he told ESPN.com, “from the role I played, to the performance I turned in, to the amount of screen time that I had, to the finished product.” The interview helpfully included a still wherein a shirtless Affleck snaps in doo-wop rhythm to “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” as Damon looks on. Damon keeps his shirt. In fact, everyone in the room but Affleck keeps his shirt. He puts one on partway through, off in the corner, unnoticed.
Dazed and Confused (1993, dir. Richard Linklater)
The ‘90s looks at the ‘70s. Affleck plays Fred O’Bannion, an asshole. The film contains a great many actors who would go on to big things—Milla Jovovich—and Affleck is but one strand in the tapestry.
An Austin accent atop a bullying Boston bray sounds a little off, and he wears the period hairstyle worse than most. Who’da thunk he'd be among the cast members to, as they say, ‘make it’? But these things are not always crystal clear.
Okay, so it’s easy to see how Matthew McConaughey as Wooderson proved a bit of a breakout. But why did the movie gods smile on Affleck, or Milla Jovovich, and not, oh, Rory Cochrane as starring stoner Slater? When Parker Posey was crowned Queen of the Indies, where was that beautiful girl who played Sabrina, whatever her name was? (Christin Hinojosa—see, you've forgotten.) It is a mystery no one is ever to explain. Two people can turn in fine work in a fine movie, and one you hear from again and one you don’t. Someone saw this flick and thought Affleck made a good asshole. And cogs began to turn.
Mallrats (1995, dir. Kevin Smith)
The time shifts again. Kevin Smith’s much-maligned sophomore effort is appropriately sophomoric, an ‘80s movie set in the ‘90s. If you remember the kids dashing through the corridor in The Breakfast Club, dangling from a rope in Adventures in Babysitting, peeking at naked chicks in Porky's—well, they’re a little older now, but not too old for wacky hijinks at the mall.
Affleck, still stuck in the ensemble, plays Shannon Hamilton of Fashionable Male. He is the paragon of respectable consumer culture, a “pillar of the shopping community” with “no respect for people with no shopping agenda.” While merry misfits like Jay and Silent Bob or comic fiend Brodie scamper hither and yon in silly set pieces, Shannon skulks around in freshman-beating mode on loan from Linklater. He’s a heavy without the weight.
The good gang’s reindeer games are right out of the Chris Columbus / John Hughes tradition, but Shannon represents the worst of the ‘80s—the materialism, the pursuit of things, the preservation of status and the upkeep of appearances. He is the Patrick Bateman of Eden Prairie Mall. His love interest Rene is played by Shannen Doherty, fresh off 90210, resplendent in a floral-print dress—a walking sign of the times. But his appetite becomes his undoing when the nature of his lustŅand a penchant for screwing women in a very uncomfortable placeŅis revealed, via leaked research for the book Bore-gasm: A Study of the Nineties Male Sexual Prowess. There is no place for such creeping ego from the Me Decade in the era of reality biting, and, like, you know, whatever; evil must be punished, even by slackers.
In the end, Affleck teaches us, you can’t be a jerk forever. Time for one from the heart.
Chasing Amy (1997, dir. Kevin Smith)
Kevin Smith’s essay for the Chasing Amy Criterion Collection disc describes himself—and protagonist Holden McNeil—as a “‘90s liberal male”, a man who tries to rise above the worst qualities of men in an enlightened world, somehow. “The character of Holden is the closest to me I’ve ever written,” Smith confesses. No prizes for guessing who Affleck plays, in his ascent to leading-manhood.
Holden is everything Smith promises. A sensitive guy with a sensitive beard. He bares his soul. Sometimes he even cries. Like Clinton, you feel his pain. Even his name fairly reeks of a certain crushed idealism and wounded emotions, verging precipitously toward the wrong decision. “Finally, a comedy that tells it like it feels,” runs the tagline. There is hurt here.
Affleck does beautifully. Smith wrote the film for the three actors that led it, and gave up the bulk of a three-million-dollar budget in order to cast it his way (and got a Matt Damon cameo in the bargain). Miramax saw Holden for David Schwimmer from Friends, no slouch of a series in the decade-defining department itself—but Smith had a different take on the times.
And what times. The ‘90s rule the frame. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones contribute a song, and it’s the one you think it is. Boots are worn, as is flannel. As for the film’s once-splash-making content, its sidelong glance at the gay community, its frank discussions of sexuality—well, these sorts of movies were very ‘in’ once, boys and girls. It was a moment in time. But Affleck is lucky. For he leads a film that is more than its issues, and stands the test of time.
Good Will Hunting (1997, dir. Gus Van Sant)
A feel-good movie with a feel-good story behind it. Two kids in their mid-twenties, lifelong friends from Boston, pull a Rocky. You know: pen an inspirational screenplay about a low-prospects, lower-class guy with one shot at redemption… and reserve the best part for yourself. (Yourselves, in this case.)
It’s easy to forget that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote this movie—but, then, who ever remembers the writers. Damon plays a sensitive young man with a painful past. Affleck cedes the spotlight and takes the supporting role of Chuckie Sullivan. Bit of a lunkhead, but a good lunkhead, even noble—O’Bannion with Holden’s heart, perhaps. But it almost seems superfluous to discuss his acting, when his fingerprints are all over the movie, whether he’s in the scene or not.
And that extends beyond the wordsmith’s mystique. The opening titles alone reveal that the flick’s a class reunion for Affleck all the way through. Kevin Smith and his producer Scott Mosier brought the project to Miramax. Will and Chuckie’s bickering buddies are played by Ben’s brother Casey and School Ties / Dazed and Confused alumnus Cole Hauser. It’s as if every fragment of his career, his decade, has shown up for Ben’s big moment.
And big it was: the boys from Boston went home with the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and a place in the pantheon as Hollywood hotshots. It took playing a sensitive male to get Ben Affleck taken seriously as an actor; it took writing one to make him bankable. Truly, 1997 was the annus mirabilis Affleckicus; ‘90s liberal males everywhere rejoiced. In January 1998, the President’s sex life would go from harmless joke to national crisis, and commence the crumbling of an innocent decade.
Armageddon (1998, dir. Michael Bay)
Unequivocally the Citizen Kane of late-‘90s pyrotechnic cinema, this arresting assault on coherence is the film we’ll show our grandchildren when they ask how we spent our summers: a high-concept, higher-budget romp from the unstoppable producer-director-explosion team of Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael Bay and explosions.
The casting strategy was odd but ingenious—surround reliable action hero Bruce Willis with slumming stalwarts from the indie world, a virtual United Nations of the art-house scene: Billy Bob Thornton (still the Sling Blade guy, mm-hmm), Liv Tyler of Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty and Allan Moyle’s Empire Records, Owen Wilson from the Wes Anderson stable, Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare from Coen country. So it was that Ben Affleck’s big floating head found its way onto a big-floating-head movie poster.
The trappings of the old ‘90s are obliterated. No more men feeling feelings, no more flannel and grunge rock, no more chunky boots. A new ‘90s have emerged, the late ones—the ones where the Friends start having weddings and giving birth. Fumbling introspection has grown up, but into what?
Into a lumbering beast, apparently. A.J. Frost is a big dumb role in a big dumb movie, and it’s not Affleck’s finest work; he lacks the movie-star experience of Bruce Willis to carry him through on confidence, and he doesn’t get to hide inside a wacky one-joke character as some of his comrades do (gleefully). He gets lost in the shuffle. But who bought a ticket for the acting, anyhow?
His best scene’s the one where the blue-collar-grunts-turned-astronauts make their march to the launch. It’s a slow sequence, by Michael Bay standards. Representing youth and exuberance, Affleck bursts into song, and presses his forehead against Liv Tyler’s forehead, and lifts her and kisses her and finds joy in the moment. You believe it when he tells the girl he’s coming back, and if his boyish brio and manly stubble is any indication, he’ll be a hero to boot.
This is not the scene where an oil-rig grunt becomes an astronaut. This is the scene where a man becomes a movie star.
And what a movie. Fourteen reels costing $135 million and grossing triple that figure worldwide; Toto, we're not at Miramax any more. “Unholy,” Peter Travers called it; “ugly,” whined the San Francisco Chronicle. But as guilty pleasures go, Armageddon is a king-sized treat, a carcinogenic cheeseburger with chili fries served by a large-breasted blonde in a stars-and-stripes bikini for consumption in one of those vibrating chairs at the mall. It is, in short, the movie for an American midsummer, and Affleck is simply along for the ride.
Later on in the film, he says lines like, “Oh, man. Well, we all gotta die, right? I’m the guy who gets to do it saving the world.” And he says lines like, “Harry’ll do it. I know it.”—(dramatic pause)—“He doesn’t know how to fail.” And he kisses the girl in the very last shot, as we freeze the frame and fade to black.
And it’s okay that he does all this, because he has earned the right.
Shakespeare in Love (1998, dir. John Madden)
A film tailor-made for the Oscars: upmarket but not overly artsy. Pairing genuine wit and affection with just the right infusion of irreverence, this delightful romp made audiences nationwide feel classy and cultured on at least the order of a PBS patron without forgetting to touch the heart.
It’s a fantastic film, but a calculated one. The clever gags and in-jokes of Shakespeare in Love, however highbrow, are no more spontaneous or experimental than the exacting, exploding eye candy of Armageddon. They are both machines, and finely polished jewels of their form, carefully crafted by people who knew what the hell they were doing and wanted you to see they’d done their homework. Not very grunge. Not very ‘90s. But it’s absolutely wonderful.
Affleck enjoys a supporting role as Edward Alleyn, a high-profile actor who turns up in every Goddamned thing. It is an eerie portent of a Ben Affleck yet to come.
Forces of Nature (1999, dir. Bronwen Hughes)
This movie contains Ben Affleck. It is a romantic comedy in which two people you might not expect to love each other spend a lot of time together owing to contrivances. One of them, you see, is quirky and irrepressible in a screwball sort of fashion, and the other does not conduct himself in such a way. Adventures are had, whilst a cynically chosen needle-drop track hints that, should Affleck be unable to be with the one he loves, he might do well to love the one he’s with. “In 1999,” mused Mick LaSalle, “that adds up to a sort-of, kind-of middling experience at the movies.”
It’s unclear what went wrong here. The piece is photographed with real flair; director Bronwen Hughes works overtime to make it look like more. Writer Marc Lawrence went on to make several more romcoms and give Sandra Bullock even more lovable-kook roles. Maybe the execution wasn’t the problem. Maybe the movie just didn’t need to exist, not just then.
Affleck’s contribution probably merits a mention at some point. His character is named Ben. This is appropriate, as he was hired to be Ben, just as Sandra Bullock was hired to be Sandra Bullock, as if all this alone will make the movie work.
The 21st century was already being scripted. Certainly Affleck’s. Oh, there’d be some genuinely interesting studio fare yet, before the fall—Don Roos’ ill-starred Bounce, Roger Michell’s underrated Changing Lanes. But the writing was on the wall, and it’s an easy line to trace between Forces of Nature and the infamous Gigli. Personally and professionally, the overexposure of Ben Affleck was at hand, and the new millennium would be a poorer one for it.
Dogma (1999, dir. Kevin Smith)
This film feels out of place here. It’s not the movie’s fault; it’s a brave, brilliant screenplay brought to life with a crackling cast. And it’s not Affleck’s fault; he turns in strong work as Bartleby, the movie’s complicated villain, a fallen angel in too far over his once-haloed head. The casting of Matt ‘n’ Ben as the doomed duo on a quest against God is delicious. But somehow, Dogma just doesn’t feel like part of this inventory.
Blame the ‘90s. They don’t really show up in this flick. Different values, different feels, different and less regrettable fashions. Everyone’s a little older now, a little more mature; even Kevin Smith has moved on from his old tricks. No more alt-rock in crummy convenience stores and comics shops; nothing to suggest the hand of a helmer from the Sundance class of ‘94.
It’s Affleck’s last movie of the decade, and it’s hard to find the era—or indeed any—in Dogma. Even the genius casting of Alanis Morissette as God should have placed the piece in time. But the mighty songstress of Jagged Little Pill has no lines; her voice is, we’re told, too awesome to actually hear. Can God create a decade so forgettable that She, Herself, cannot recall it?
A great film like Dogma should have succeeded in any age. Instead, like its decade, it got buried under a whole lot of noise and didn’t really change the world the way it should have. The ‘90s were dying, and apparently we were all ready to get on with 2000, no matter how crummy a year it would be. That was true in cinema and in life.
Janeane Garofalo cameos.
. . .