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Gone Baby Gone: Good film hunting 

Ben Affleck's gritty debut gives viewers something to argue about

Not long after Ben Affleck and Matt Damon won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Good Will Hunting, Affleck became one of the most resented celebrities in Hollywood. Perhaps his acting range is a little limited for a performer who became such a modern-day matinee idol, but worse actors have become huge movie stars (or California governors). The press hostility to Affleck's relationship with Jennifer Lopez and their big-screen bomb Gigli always seemed rather petty, as if Affleck didn't "deserve" his level of fame and privilege. Maybe not, but who does?

With his directorial debut Gone Baby Gone, Affleck makes a surprisingly successful bid to be taken seriously. Gone Baby Gone sets a high bar for itself, clearly using Clint Eastwood's Oscar winner Mystic River as its model. Like Eastwood's film, Gone Baby Gone shares a Boston setting, grim themes of lost innocence and source material in a novel by Dennis Lehane. Even if you found Mystic River overrated, Gone Baby Gone holds up surprisingly well.

Like Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone presents a procedural crime drama involving at least one violation of childhood. Here, Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro (Ben's younger brother Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan), a pair of young detectives and lovers, are hired to help find a kidnapped 4-year-old girl, with the grieving family reasoning that their low-life contacts might turn up leads the police cannot. Monaghan initially resists taking the case, understanding that the chances of rescue are dim, and the likelihood of heartbreak is enormous. And they realize that even the best-case scenario would return the girl to a clearly unfit, drug-using mother (Amy Ryan).

For the first 20 minutes or so, Affleck lays on the local color a bit thickly, and the cast labors under the weight of the Boston accents. It's easy to flash back to the director's appearances on the recurring "Saturday Night Live" sketches" about dumb teens ("You're retahded!" "You ah!"). It's like the way the mournful Catholic imagery arrives like clockwork later in the film.

Despite some heavy-handedness, Gone displays some efficient mean-street storytelling, crafting in charged confrontations at dive bars and drug dens. When the young detectives become reluctant partners with two veteran police officers (Ed Harris and John Ashton), Affleck effectively teases out the reluctant respect in the relationship. Harris gives the film its gravitas and credibility, while Casey Affleck conveys such resolve and sensitivity that he renders moot any accusation of nepotism. Although Monaghan relies too much on a blank prettiness, Patrick and Angie serve as a kind of appealing, working-class version of married sleuths Nick and Nora Charles from the Thin Man movies.

Gone Baby Gone comes in a movie season marked by despair, particularly over dead children or family members (such as the sons in Resurrection Road and In the Valley of Elah). In such a mournful climate, Gone Baby Gone offers more than simple displays of grief. It poses some difficult questions over what truly constitutes the best interest of a child. Affleck was never famous as a nuanced actor, but as a filmmaker, he proves surprisingly willing to venture into uncomfortably gray ethical areas. Gone Baby Gone deserves credit for leaving audiences with something to argue about on the way home.

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