MOVIE REVIEW- Ben in Boston: Directing debut satisfies some

If he wanted street cred, why didn't Ben Affleck just cut a rap album like everyone else? Instead, he's gone home to Boston for his feature directing debut and filmed Gone Baby Gone in seedy sections of the city and environs, primarily working-class Dorchester, he'd probably never been to before except for location scouting.

Written by Affleck and Aaron Stockard from a novel by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River), Gone Baby Gone is a series of moral dilemmas wrapped in a flimsy but convoluted plot. It finds several ways to make you ponder difficult, if not impossible questions. For example: Is it better to do the wrong thing for the right reason than to do the right thing for the wrong reason? Ultimately you're left thinking that even when you're right, you're wrong.

Like the world it depicts, Gone Baby Gone is a mix of good and evil. We can assume Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) is good because he's our hero, even if he's a private investigator who describes his work: "I find the people who started in the cracks and then fell through."

One day he gets a chance to be a real detective when Bea (Amy Madigan) and Lionel McCready (Titus Welliver) hire him to find their kidnapped niece. The girl's mother, Helene (Amy Ryan), is a lowlife barfly and cokehead. We don't have to see too much of her to figure four-year-old Amanda (Madeline O'Brien), wherever she is, is probably better off.

The police are already investigating, led by Capt. Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), head of the Bureau of Missing Children. He's serious about his job because his own daughter was kidnapped and killed. He tells Detectives Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton) to cooperate with Kenzie, because he knows the neighborhood better than they do.

Patrick starts his own investigation with the help of his live-in assistant, Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan). They hit Helene's favorite bar, and Patrick has to pull a gun to get out, and that's before they find the really nasty people. Those would be the drug dealers, including Cheese (Edi Gathegi), "a violent, sociopathic Haitian criminal" who lost $130,000 around the time Helene lost Amanda. It seems possible to arrange a trade of the cash for the girl at a photogenic quarry, but things go awry and a bad situation gets worse.

There's also a pedophile in the story, Corwin Earle (Matthew Maher), so there can be one character everybody agrees to hate and we can imagine the worst for Amanda. 

Time passes before a mildly surprising turn of events triggers a final moral question. Patrick makes his decision, Angie makes hers; everyone with a vote weighs in and things are resolved, though not to the satisfaction of all.

So many people do so many bad things in Gone Baby Gone that an unreasonable amount of time is devoted to self-justification, which doesn't make for exciting cinema. Most of the action feels like it's there to break up the talk, rather than being organic to the story.

Being an actor, director Affleck gives his performers plenty of time to shine, from the leads to minor neighborhood figures. Although his brother seems more out of his element than the character should, he pulls it off pretty well. Monaghan manages to be a little more than just "The Girl," and old pros Freeman, Harris, and Madigan do the great work expected of them. Perhaps most impressive of all– because her best previous work has been on the stage– is Amy Ryan, who has more films coming out soon and will doubtless become a key player.

Besides showing off his actors, Affleck shows off his city, with a lot of interesting locations. He does a decent job of directing, but it will take more than this to convince us he's the love child of Martin Scorsese and John Singleton, which seems to be his goal.