I watch a lot of movies and usually like when the story is "one step ahead of me." But The Last Thing He Wanted, a Netflix film that made its debut at Sundance, is disorienting, phony, and impossible to follow, and makes for two very uncomfortable hours.
Supporting player Willem Dafoe is suffering from dementia, so there is a very faint possibility that director Dee Rees is playing a long, metatextual game here, and the convoluted, perplexing storyline in her new film is meant to be some sort of exercise in empathy. But I suspect this is not the case.
Rees, whose previous films include the truly grand and spectacular Mudbound and heartfelt coming-of-age picture Pariah, has delivered an uncharacteristic failure with The Last Thing He Wanted. It isn't just bad, it's "sniff this milk and tell me if it is spoiled" bad.
It begins in somewhat straightforward fashion. It's the early 1980s and Elena (Anne Hathaway) and Alma (Rosie Perez) are reporters for a major American newspaper in Central America. During violent unrest, they escape back to the US by the skin of their teeth. Elena is a firebrand, and confronts Secretary of State George Schultz. As a result, the paper is pressured to tamp down their coverage of the region.
But Elena will fight for the truth, right? Well, kinda. Turns out her Dad (Dafoe) is also a gun-runner, selling arms to the anti-socialist Contra rebels. This means he is maybe doing the bidding of more nefarious corners of the Reagan Administration? It's never quite explained.
Suddenly Elena finds herself stuck in the jungle, hoping to get $1 million in an effort to get creditors off her increasingly sick father's back. But she's stuck instead with a bag full of drugs. (I recall a button a counter-culture-ish pal wore from this era that read "CIA: Cocaine Import Agency.")
Elena has to go undercover, hide out in hotels, make phone calls (including shoehorned ones to her daughter to remind us "there are stakes!"), witness assassination attempts (on who exactly?), and then get all smoochy with agency spook Ben Affleck. Luckily I saw this movie with a friend and was able to turn to him on multiple occasions and say "what exactly is happening?" His responses only came in shrugs.
The Last Thing He Wanted is like watching multiple movies collide into one another, then get horribly intermingled. Hathaway is a reporter filing copy from the campaign trail one minute, the next she's firing off a Glock and racing around like 007. Unfortunately it isn't silly or fun; it is meant to be heavy and serious. And it's hard to take something seriously when there is zero connection to any of the characters.
(An added point of contention for a small percentage of the audience: The shadowy villain who's pulling all the strings is a Karla/Keyser Söze-esque character whose name is only whispered -- Bob Weir. This is hilarious if you are a fan of the Grateful Dead, as Bob Weir is the shorts-wearing, long-beard-wearing, rhythm guitar player who sings lead on songs like "Truckin'" and "Sugar Magnolia." The name stems from the book, written by Joan Didion, but somebody ought to have known better. Every time his name is uttered I cracked up.)
I have not read Didion's novel and she's one of the more respected authors out there, so I'll assume this all works on the page. On film it is joyless and frustrating. Let's hope Dee Rees's follow-up is more in sync with her previous, excellent work.
TV Guide Rating: 1/5
The Last Thing He Wanted premiered at Sundance Monday, Jan. 27. It comes to Netflix on Friday, Feb. 21.