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On Netflix: THE LAST THING HE WANTED (2020)

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THE LAST THING HE WANTED
(US/UK - 2020)

Directed by Dee Rees. Written by Marco Villalobos and Dee Rees. Cast: Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, Rosie Perez, Willem Dafoe, Toby Jones, Edi Gathegi, Mel Rodriguez, Onata Aprile, Carlos Leal, Ben Chase, Julian Gamble, Rob Sedgwick, Billy Kelly, David Vadim. (R, 115 mins)

"You wanna see how a monkey drives? Buckle up. Follow the bananas." 

That's an actual line of dialogue from the new Netflix Original film THE LAST THING HE WANTED, and relatively speaking, it's one of its better ones. Based on a 1996 novel by Joan Didion, perhaps best known for scripting films like 1971's THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK, 1976's A STAR IS BORN, and 1996's UP CLOSE & PERSONAL, THE LAST THING HE WANTED utilizes much of the florid, purple prose coming directly from the source, which only serves to demonstrate just how Didion's acclaimed novel fails to translate to the screen in every possible way. We're talking unfilmable on a level of Alan Rudolph's catastrophic 1999 Kurt Vonnegut adaptation BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS. Think I'm exaggerating? Then take a spin with this voiceover monologue delivered in a hard-boiled, staccato fashion by Anne Hathaway like a vocal-fried HIS GIRL FRIDAY five minutes into the movie:

"For a while, we thought time was money. Find the time, the money comes with it. Moving fast. Get the suite, the multi-line telephones. Get room service on one, get valet on two, premium service, out by nine, back by one. Download all data, uplink Prague, get some conference calls going. Sell Allied Signal, buy Cyprus Minerals, work the management plays. Plug into the news cycle, get the wires raw, nod out on the noise. Somewhere in the nod, we were dropping cargo. Somewhere in the nod, we were losing infrastructure, losing redundant systems, losing specific gravity."





Is that a monologue from a serious geopolitical thriller or a rejected Geoff Tate spoken word section from the most pretentious outtake in the Queensryche songbook? I'm gonna memorize it and just blurt it out at random times to see how people react. Hathaway stars as Elena McMahon, a reporter for the fictional Atlantic Post, and as the film opens in 1982, she's embedded with the FMLN, covering the civil war in El Salvador with her photographer colleague Alma (Rosie Perez). She's getting wind of some secret deals going on with the Contras in Nicaragua that she traces back to D.C. only to get stone-walled by Secretary of State George Shultz (Julian Gamble). That gets her shitlisted in politico circles and when the paper caves to pressure and shuts down their Central American field office, she's reassigned to cover the 1984 Reagan/Bush re-election campaign. At the same time, her shady father Richard (Willem Dafoe, who puts forth some valiant effort in his few scenes) is suffering from the early stages of dementia and ends up in the hospital, at which point he clues her in that she needs to take care of some "business" for him, namely his secret gig as a gunrunner for the Contras.


What follows is an incoherent mishmash of Oliver Stone's SALVADOR and Michelangelo Antonioni's THE PASSENGER, with Elena taking a leave from her job to act in her ailing father's stead, which leads to unintentionally hilarious scenes of her making a gun drop on a Nicaraguan air strip and shouting "Is this the payment?" as guys in Jeeps with guns swarm around her. She travels from Florida to Salvadors El and San, Costa Rica, and eventually Antigua, where she ends up taking a job as a housekeeper for wealthy and flamboyant Paul (Toby Jones), who made his fortune in gay Costa Rican bathhouse getaways for rich, closeted American one-percenters. This somehow gets her close to...whatever it is she's searching for? Ben Affleck, looking alternately catatonic and confused, appears sporadically as Treat Morrison, a sinister Shultz State Department flunky who happens upon a despondent Elena eating chocolate ice cream and a plate full of bacon strips at a St. John's bar before they hop into bed and slog through some painfully arduous post-coital pillow talk (he talks about his dead wife, she quotes poetry). Hathaway is an excellent actress but she's just hopelessly miscast here, mistaking chain-smoking and a gravelly vocal affect for grit and toughness. The awful dialogue doesn't do anyone any favors--Hathaway is completely wrong for the part, but in her defense, how could anyone do anything with nonsensical, sub-James Ellroy word salads like "I covered many interesting things before my desk got froze and I was relegated to following around the circus filing white propaganda about all the elephant shit!" Suddenly, last year's SERENITY isn't looking so bad.


If this review seems all over the place, that's just because it's impossible to really discuss THE LAST THING HE WANTED. It feels like it's either unfinished or huge sections of it have been removed willy-nilly with no thought given to how it would impact the narrative. People appear then disappear before we can find out who they are. Elena just turns up in places with no explanation why she's there.Why does Elena take a job running errands for the bathhouse guy? Who is Jones (Edi Gathegi), some guy who just shows up after a weapons drop and gets ordered out of a car at gunpoint by Elena, only to turn up again much later and save her during a hotel shootout? There's endless talk about a gunrunning mystery man code-named "Bob Weir," and not only does no one make a Grateful Dead joke, but the ultimate revelation of his identity is tied to a sudden flashback that the film just pulls out of its ass very late in the game in maybe the laziest deus ex machina in recent memory, all leading up to what was clearly intended to be a devastating twist ending that just fails to land or tie together any loose ends because you have no clue what's even led up to it. Somehow, this dumpster fire was directed and co-written by Dee Rees, who earned significant acclaim and an Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination for her 2017 Netflix film MUDBOUND, so it's obvious Netflix attached themselves to this sight unseen before filming even began. The buzz at Sundance in early 2020 was utterly toxic, so it's little wonder the streaming giant snuck this one online with little fanfare despite the prestigious cast. THE LAST THING HE WANTED is bound to go down as a cautionary tale of what happens when aggressively unfilmable novels are adapted to the wrong medium. Still think I'm exaggerating? Well, here's the rest of that early Hathaway monologue:

"Weightlessness seemed, at the time, the safer mode. Weightlessness seemed, at the time, the mode in which we could beat the clock and the affect itself. But I see now that it was not. I see now that the clock was ticking. I see now that we were experiencing not weightlessness, but what is interestingly described on page 1513 of the Merck Manual, 15th edition, as a sustained reactive depression, a bereavement reaction to the leaving of familiar environments. I see now that the environment we were leaving was that of feeling rich. I did not see it then."


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