“There is no such thing as normal.” Said with face pinched in frustration, silence to follow. It’s counter proof and f- you! all wrapped in one. The sensitivity to “normal” is understandable considering it’s track record for self fulfilling prejudice- “Why not? It’s just not normal! Two men kissing… what next?!” Unfortunately there is a normal. Normal is the majority: it’s normal to have hair on your head, it’s not normal to have a mohawk; it’s normal to know what Coca-Cola is, it’s not normal to drink two liters of it a day; free from moralizing, normal is a rather straightforward label. Let’s do one more – it’s not normal to be free from moralizing. And so, from the sensitivity that follows, comes the challenge, “there is no such thing as normal.” Show me this normal, it asks, as if it’s the missing link or sasquatch to be seen walking whole, some platypus, some Mr. Potato head with every normal smashed impossibly together. The irony being the sight of such a thing would not be normal. Manchester by the Sea is this type of surreal amalgamation.
The film follows Lee, a benumbed handyman played by Casey Affleck, who’s trudging of the day to day is interrupted by the news of his brother’s death. We return with him to Manchester, and as he grieves, and struggles with the revelation of being named guardian of his 16 year old nephew, the past comes back to both of us, his suffering slowly explained.
This narrative technique is a success and the performances compelling, but every positive is lost to the stilted, amplified awkwardness of its direction and the writing that fuels it. It’s like watching an early episode of the Office without the punchlines or a wink of satire. One such scene sees our 16 year old, Patrick, visiting his mother after years of separation. The dinner is a series of strained pleasantries that finally completely gives out. His mother finishes the prayer and nervously chides him for not saying Amen as if he were afraid of being indoctrinated. Withdrawn, he says he did say Amen, just quietly. In that case, she fails to be casual in clarifying, you shouldn’t have felt obliged to say Amen. To which he clumsily responds, he didn’t feel obliged… and on and on it goes. It took everything in my person not yell out, “I drive a Dodge Stratus!” or, since the count of these overblown scenes was already on the second hand, just leaving.
Not that I was wanting a punchline. There is no mistaking Manchester for anything but a drama: Lee’s life, and the lives of most in the film, are sparse and tragic. There lives have only the innocuous, serious and the overly serious – just enough life for death to truly hurt. So when, in a flashback where we see his wife wheeled away from the wreckage of a burned out house, the tiny body bags of their charred children being carried off by responders, she’s lifted to the ambulance only to have the stretcher unfold and prevent the lift, then be wrestled with, before another awkward lift, and they spill forth again, to be wrestled with, etc., it’s a detail that can do nothing but take us out of the moment. It has no insight and there is nothing to laugh at. Nor is it any more cathartic when paperwork is hunted down in the hospital, or a phone rings at the funeral, or any of the times Patrick’s sexual proclivity juxtaposes grief. It’s not that each of these settings are equally dire, but the films range of emotions is so constricted as to preclude a humor that is laughing with the characters. But isn’t that real? This messy normalcy?
Everyday we have real conversations, interactions and events so real as to be pointless for posterity; and there is a level of honesty which actually serves to distort the truth. Is a motion picture on the Cuban Missile Crisis complete without three and half minutes of JFK having a bowel movement? His lifting to wipe, leaning up onto his left cheek to finger a clean rictus? What if the Kennedy’s mixed breed puppy Pushinka was licking itself loudly in the night before the Bay of Pigs, how long would we listen to it lap away in the dark? Or if, on the morning of November 22nd, Jacky questioned if her dress was too pink, and John stops tying his shoe to look up, and thinks, at the very same time as fondness glows in his belly at her image, what pink her face would turn if he walked up and slapped her, how surprised she would be, whether it would sting his hand; and he runs the scenario in an instant to be discarded; a natural human curio that creeps through all of us at times, without pride or desire or the faintest idea as to why; would the story of the President’s imminent death benefit even if that was exactly how it went? No, and Jackie wouldn’t feel any closer to him for the confession of this wild instinct, his love being confused by the strange explanation. For every scene in Manchester by the Sea that succeeds, that is articulated by the emotionally incongruous there are three that fail, sailing so far from the mark as to frustrate disbelief. It seems fake.
One of the insufferable things about depression is apparent ease with which life takes place all around you. Moments of simple pleasure mock you: a couple holding hands; a game of fetch in the park, the dog giving chase with wide grin, tongue out, leash bouncing in tow. It’s jealousy evolving into pity – they have no idea the revelation you hold in your heart. But everyone in Manchester is joyless and emotionally dumb. There’s a pathetic or coincidental comedy-of-errors feel to it. In the face of suffering, even professionals, nurses and doctors who you’d think would have a modicum of bedside manner, are stumbling blind, foreign to loss. These characters are without ballast, condemned to circumstance, so much more than in reality, hopeless. None with faith, philosophy, goal, truth, mantra, or even an attempt at one. It’s nearly a test of empathy: if you prick them they bleed, is that enough?
It’s enough; you can live without further justification, but, like Manchester by the Sea, I can’t recommend it. It proves even movies without golden heroes and Hollywood endings can ring false, myopic with half truth.