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Unsolved Mystery: Just What Is the Allure of Ben Affleck?

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No pearl: Ben Affleck in the just-released "Pearl Harbor"

I have an announcement to make. I realize that it will probably make me very unpopular, especially at this particular juncture, what with "Pearl Harbor" out in theaters this weekend and everything. Heck, this little confession might even make me seem downright un-American. But I just canít stay silent any longer.

I donít get Ben Affleck.

There. I said it. And I am bracing for a rash of hysterical emails defending the lesser half of the Affleck-Damon duo. Before you start writing, though, hear me out. Itís not that I doubt that Ben is a nice guy. Iím reasonably confident that he is.

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Itís just that in the hysteria surrounding the release of "Pearl Harbor," I (like most other Americans blessed with the gift of sight) have been bombarded by scenes from the movie. The trailer (which I suspect is much better than the movie itself) showcases a triumphant Cuba Gooding, Jr., an anguished Kate Beckinsale and a constipated-looking Alec Baldwin. And then thereís Ben, who manages, despite what Iím sure is a very simple script, to look both bemused and lost in every frame he inhabits.

Is this movie-star material? I think not.

Then thereís the whole heartthrob thing. Where did we go so far astray in this country as to consider someone like Ben, who is a reasonably nice-looking fellow, but no more a heartthrob than most of the guys in my high school class, worthy of matinee idol status?

Perhaps what distresses me most about Benís appeal is that while the worldís 15-year-old girls seem to find him irresistible, I find him bland. More important, perhaps, I find him wholly lacking that ineffable spark that makes a movie star a movie star. I am willing to consider the possibility that Iím not seeing that spark because Iím getting old. Ed Harris does it for me — so does George Clooney. Ben Affleck does not. Is this a rite of passage nobody told me about?

I know there are plenty of people out there (including lots of concerned mothers) who consider Affleckís clean-cut, aw-shucks shtick a welcome reprieve from the sultry seductiveness of many Hollywood heartthrobs. It may not even be a shtick — Iím not sure Affleck is that good of an actor — he may really be just that benign in real life. But maybe he could do with a little bit of dirt under those nails, a few lines of concern around his eyes. Maybe he should check back with us in 25 years or so and weíll see if heís acquired anything resembling an edge.

Much has been made of the friendship between Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. I imagine that when Ben and Matt were growing up on the not-so-mean streets of Cambridge, Mass., Ben often got permission to do things (crazy kid things, like go to Red Sox games — at night!) because Matt was coming along. "Oh, that nice Matthew is going? Okay, Ben. Just behave, for heavenís sake." Something tells me that trend continues to this day in studios all over Hollywood. "Okay, Ben, you can make this movie. Just listen to what Matt says, okay?"

Hence my grave concerns that Ben is simply in over his head these days, traipsing through Hollywood for no other reason than that Matt is there, too. Iíll put it bluntly. Matt Damon has that movie star spark. Ben Affleck does not.

Matt also apparently has a much better agent than Ben. Letís examine, just for fun, the choices each of these guys has made after their phenomenal breakthrough just a few years ago. Matt signed on for "Rounders," "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Saving Private Ryan." Ben, on the other hand, was tapped for such gems as "Phantoms," "Boiler Room" and "Forces of Nature." They both appeared in "Dogma," which I firmly believe is one of the worst movies ever made. So they both lose points on that one. To be absolutely fair, Ben did show up in "Shakespeare in Love," but his performance was eerily similar to Keanu Reevesís in "Much Ado About Nothing," so itís probably kinder just to ignore it.

Unfortunately, as the entire movie-going public knows all too well, Benís latest release will be very hard to ignore. However, as the movie itself insists on informing us via a mind-numbing array of explosions, fireworks and lame dialogue, we are, on film, anyway, a stubbornly optimistic nation, populated by heroes with indomitable spirits. And so we can turn what might otherwise be unproductive and crushing embarrassment for these young actors into hope. Specifically, hope that one of these celluloid heroes either signs up for an acting class — or, conversely, undergoes some unspecified life-altering experience that gives his liquid brown eyes a glimmer of soulfulness.

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