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Last Shot, The (2004) Print E-mail
Friday, 24 September 2004
“The Last Shot” is an amiable, even cheerful tale that never quite coalesces into a fully-developed entry. There’s too much going on, the point of view is not well established, and it’s all disappointingly bland. This is screenwriter Jeff Nathanson’s first movie as a director; he wrote “The Terminal” and “Catch Me If You Can,” but also “Speed 2” and “Rush Hour 2,” so his record is spotty. Here, his script might have been served better if it had been helmed by a more experienced director.

In 1985, Joe Devine (Alec Baldwin) is a veteran FBI agent willing to take big chances—he allows suspects to cut off his finger just to get firm goods on them. But he’s exiled in Houston; his brother Jack (Ray Liotta) is evidently the one holding Joe back. But he’s also the one who assigns Joe to a task in Providence, Rhode Island, to trap gangster Tommy Sanz (Tony Shalhoub) in a sting operation.

Since Sanz controls the Providence Teamsters, and since a movie made on location requires a heck of a lot of trucks, Joe gets the idea of posing as a producer of just such a movie so he can nab Sanz. But first he needs a movie to produce.

In Hollywood, Steven Schats (Matthew Broderick) is longing to get into movies; the closest he’s come so far is being the doorman at Grauman’s Chinese Theater and living next to a kennel where stars board their dogs. His would-be actress girlfriend Valerie (Calista Flockhart) is just about fed up with the dogs and the waiting for Steven to get his big chance.

Joe meets Steven, author of “Arizona,” a script he co-wrote with his brother Marshal Paris (Tim Blake Nelson), about their sister who died romantically out in the desert. Marshal works at a Western amusement park where he’s gunned down four times a day by his own father, playing Ben Cartwright. Steven is ecstatic when Joe agrees to produce his film; Marshal is permanently annoyed.

So Joe and Steven, beginning to become good friends, fly off to Providence to find a way to make Rhode Island look like Arizona, to hire a crew, to hire a cast. Everything goes so swimmingly that early on Joe could arrest Sanz for bribery (etc.), but Joe convinces his FBI superiors to let him continue in hopes of catching more crooks.
All this was based on a real FBI sting operation of some years ago, and an article about it by Steve Fishman. And yes, in real life, the movie was set in Arizona but was scheduled to shoot in Rhode Island. The FBI got their quarry, and the production was abandoned five years before it began. The real filmmakers, Gary Levy and Dan Lewk, only learned of the deception when they read about it in the press.

Nathanson goes in a different direction. Joe is something of a sadsack FBI agent; his beloved dog has recently died, he’s not going anywhere in his career, and he’s actually thrilled to be involved in making a movie—even a fake movie. Steven has no idea that this is a sting operation, and is overwhelmed by his dreams finally coming true: he’s going to make a movie, even to direct it.

They hire a cast and crew; Steven and Joe have to give the leading role to star Emily French (Toni Collette), but Valerie is given a major role in the movie, too. They also hire Russell Means and Pat Morita for roles in the film.

The dialogue is good and the actors are very game, and include several making unbilled appearances, including Eric Roberts in a bit, and Joan Cusack, hilarious in her few scenes as a Hollywood type. The real delight is Collette, utterly convincing and very funny as the self-obsessed star. But she’s not treated as a joke—she’s full of herself, full of startling ideas (she urinates in a wine glass at a restaurant to show she’s drug free), but is depicted as a pretty good actress.

The movie in general doesn’t lampoon its characters, treating all of them with respect, if humor. Steven and Joe’s growing friendship and commitment to the movie is touching and earnest, and the two actors play well off one another, even if neither seems quite the right type for their parts. Shalhoub plays it absolutely straight as the tough gangster, nephew of John Gotti; he’s actually creepy, and given few funny lines.

The problem is that the whole thing is flat and shapeless; scenes are shot in a very standard manner and have little internal energy. There’s no feeling of the whole operation—movie or sting—building to a climax; any ten minutes of this movie is paced much the same as any other ten minute section. The actors don’t seem to have been given much help by Nathanson as director, and the performances are all over the place—Baldwin plays it straight, Broderick in a comic fashion, Collette broadly but honestly. They all seem to be in their own separate movies.

Instead of fresh, the movie is stilted and overly familiar, and there’s a feeling that Nathanson is really reaching for some gags. A thread of cruelty to dogs runs throughout the movie, as if a dog’s death is automatically funny. On the other hand, it must be said that Nathan does get some legitimate gags out of the death of Joe’s dog, which committed suicide by jumping into his Jacuzzi. Still, Nathanson brings up dogs in danger far too often; these scenes become uncomfortable to watch. It’s hard to tell if it’s supposed to be a joke when the characters on screen describe a towering mule as a burro, or if it’s Nathanson who doesn’t know the difference.

The best lines are given to the supporting players; Cusack warns that breast cancer is out, brain cancer is in as movie material. “I’ve got Meg Tilly attached,” she says, “and Tilly likes brains.” “You can’t hold a gun to people’s heads and make them go to the movies,” Joe says to Sanz. “You say so…” Sanz replies, suggesting an entire world view in three words.

But the movie is awkward throughout, with its unvarying pace, shapeless scenes, and actors struggling to give life to half-written roles. It’s a pleasant film to watch, but there’s a lot missing.

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