"The Last Thing He Wanted" Movie Review
Though I've never read Joan Didion's 1996 novel, it's a safe bet that the entirely nonsensical, overly convoluted film adaptation of The Last Thing He Wanted has taken the best-selling novel, lit it on fire and chucked it into a trash can. It’s stunning, in fact, how bad this thing is. Just one week after the arrival a film I thought would coast through 2020 as the worst of the year, we get one so devoid of anything positive (despite a roster of A-list talent) that Fantasy Island begins to earn credit for at least not taking itself too seriously.
The failure of The Last Thing He Wanted begins with director Dee Rees (who dazzled in 2017 with the supremely moving Mudbound). Near as I can tell, Last Thing is a serious effort. Having co-written the script (with first-timer Marco Villalobos), Rees certainly seems invested in the material. There aren’t any winks or nods or satire at work here—just a serious director getting serious actors to give us a serious movie. Unfortunately, what they’re working with doesn’t allow it.
Hathaway leads the way as Elena McMahon, a reporter for the Atlantic Post (Didion called it what it is—The Washington Post—in her book) in the early 1980s investigating the United States government’s covert dealings with the Contras in Central America. When she gets too nosy, her assignment gets yanked from her, and she’s sent out on the Reagan re-election trail. Meanwhile, her failing-health father Dick (Willem Dafoe) is neck-deep in being a horrible dad while simultaneously running a guns-for-drugs scheme in the tropics. And did I mention Ben Affleck as Treat Morrison, a shady (or maybe not) mid-level government executive who floats in and out of the movie like a sideburned feather on a sinister breeze? Oh, and Elena has a daughter away at boarding school, who figures into the story not at all.
When Dick falls ill, Elena takes it upon herself (for reasons known only to her) to follow through on her dad’s “one last job”—running a shipping container full of assault rifles and landmines to Costa Rica in exchange for suitcases full of cash. Naturally, it blows up in her face (literally… and dog lovers are urged to stay WAY the heck away), which sets her off on a hair-raising (though not really) mission to find the money and get back home.
I can only surmise that the added luxury of the written word helps The Last Thing He Wanted make sense on paper, because at the cineplex there’s no hint whatsoever that there’s a coherent story in play. One character drifts in and out with barely any notice only to be revealed as a Keyser Söze-like major twist at the end (at least I think he does—it’s still not clear). A jarring sex scene pops up so randomly that you’ll think it’s a dream sequence or flashback or both. (It’s not.) And Hathaway delivers each and every one of her lines (including her entirely incoherent voice-over narration) with enough gravitas to choke a cow.
I was proven wrong last year (thanks, Cats!) when I jumped the gun and declared Serenity the worst of 2019 far too early, so I’m hesitant to make the same mistake twice… but, my heavens, The Last Thing He Wanted is unquestionably the last thing anyone would want in a movie. Ever.