Monday, February 24, 2020

The Last Thing He Wanted Is A Poorly Cobbled-Together Political Thriller

Sometimes, bad movies aren't shocking. As a critic, I always go into movies hoping for the very best, but sometimes films that sound dire on paper end up being equally dire in execution. It wasn't exactly shocking when, say, a Mummy movie creatively driven by Alex Kurtzman ended up being bad and did anyone who saw the trailer for Arctic Dogs gasp in astonishment upon hearing that the actual film was torture to sit through? The Last Thing He Wanted is the opposite of that experience. This is a film with loads of potential between its star-studded cast and especially its writer & director, Dee Rees. Rees has been responsible for two incredible recent movies (Pariah and Mudbound) and Last Thing He Wanted represents the drastic shift downward in quality from prior directorial efforts for a filmmaker since David Fincher followed up with Zodiac with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

The plot of The Last Thing He Wanted is an extremely difficult one to parse through. All of the people who thought the non-linear structure of Greta Gerwig's Little Women was hard to follow would have their heads explode trying to make sense of what goes on with Last Thing He Wanted. In a nutshell, Elena McMahon (Anne Hathaway) is a journalist covering assorted Contras groups in South America in the early 1980s. However, she's reassigned by her editor to cover the far less challenging material of Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign. That job gets interrupted when her estranged and sickly dad, Dick McMahon (Willem Dafoe), recruits Elena to oversee a weapons-exchange that will make him rich. This operation ends up leaving Elena stranded in various South American countries as she figures out who exactly she can trust.

Netflix, which produced The Last Thing He Wanted, prides itself on being a place where traditional policies like studio executive notes won't interfere with the visions of artists. Who knows if such high-level creative interference transpired here, but The Last Thing He Wanted totally feels like a movie torn to shreds by last-minute meddling and editing from studio executives. The final product feels like half-a-dozen movies smushed into one, with none of them working together properly. Seemingly prominent characters vanish for prolonged periods of time. Such characters include Elena's daughter who appears only one in the first ten minutes of the runtime before suddenly re-emerging in the third act with an abruptly introduced fractured relationship with her mother or a character played by Ben Affleck who seems to exist in a wholly different movie.

The disparate storylines especially struggle to co-exist in terms of having any overlapping thematic connective tissue. Sometimes, characters say lines of dialogue ("We are more than our stories" being an especially good example) or walk by television sets playing historical bits of news coverage that seem like they could be pointing towards the thesis of the entire production. However, potentially interesting larger ideas that could unite the individual parts of The Last Thing He Wanted never materialize properly. The only element that keeps reoccurring across the various subplots is some truly terrible dialogue that appears to be channeling the dialogue style of paranoid political thrillers of the 1970s but ends up just sounding tin-eared. Was there any actor who could make the line "Follow the bananas" work?

The Last Thing He Wanted's screenplay, credited to Dee Rees and Marco Villalobos, is a hodgepodge of thinly-realized ideas and characters that tosses so much at the wall only for none of it to stick. Slapdash editing from Mako Kamitsuna only reinforces the clumsy nature of the entire movie, particularly in terms of the ham-fisted way characters are introduced or re-introduced into the movie without much thought or style. A handful of nicely-realized shots in the film, including an early moment where the camera pans from Elena to her far-away daughter in the space of a single take, are the exception but not the rule to the lackluster visual style of The Last Thing He Wanted.

Caught up in the middle of all this underwhelming filmmaking is a star-studded cast, one whose individual members keep giving radically different types of performances. Anne Hathaway's somber voice-over and short-tempered demeanor is attempting to channel classic film noir protagonists but falls short of turning this pastiche into something more substantive. Meanwhile, supporting players like Toby Jones and Mel Rodriguez are delivering far more caricatured performances that are impossible to buy as actual people. It's thoroughly baffling to watch so much of The Last Thing He Wanted go so badly awry, especially given the high level of quality seen in the prior works of director Dee Rees.

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