Based on a true story about a late-1980s FBI operation, The Last Shot is the rare Hollywood comedy that isn’t dumbed-down to appeal to an assumed audience of slow-witted 12-year-olds or scrubbed clean of the vulgar, anarchic language that makes for genuine belly laughs. The film is full of blue humor, but it’s there to serve the story. Too many recent comedies have been packed full of coarse gags with nothing more behind them than an adolescent desire to take a joke into the bathroom or the bedroom, to make us laugh like naughty children at the rejection of propriety. The vulgarity of The Last Shot, though, can’t be ignored or dismissed because it has the ring of truth. It gets under your skin because it’s not a gimmick for a cheap laugh; it expresses the characters’ cynical worldview.
Alec Baldwin plays Joe Devine, a dogged but not-too-bright FBI agent forever in the shadow of his more successful brother, Jack (Ray Liotta), an assistant director at the bureau. A reassignment to Providence, Rhode Island, puts Joe on the trail of Tommy Sanz (Tony Shalhoub), a minor-league mobster who makes off-book deals with the Teamsters for a price. Joe concocts a sting — Operation Dramex — in which he’ll pose as a movie producer and offer Sanz a bribe. The only catch is that he needs a movie he can pretend to produce. Enter Matthew Broderick as Steven Schats, a manager at Mann’s Chinese Theater who dreams of making the movie he’s written, Arizona, which he describes as “a true story of a dying young woman who travels through the desert in search of herself and the Hopi Indian spirit caves.” Schats is a dreamer whose ambitions far outweigh his talents, but before long Devine is so caught up in pretending to make Schats’ movie that he convinces himself that it’s really going to happen. His superiors get in on the act, too, delivering script notes and offering him a three-picture deal.
The film is a great showpiece for its two leads. Baldwin is a confident (some might say arrogant) enough actor that he doesn’t need to be liked. When he plays a loveable loser, we warm to the character precisely because Baldwin doesn’t try to make us do so. His performances are directed inward. He also has a range that allows him to play convincingly characters ranging from a schlub to a sociopath, sometimes in the same role. There are elements of both in Joe, yet his foremost quality is his eagerness, his hunger for success, whether by advancement in the FBI or by becoming a Hollywood producer. Baldwin’s scenes with Broderick crackle because we see Joe being drawn in by Steven’s loser dreams. He comes to believe in Steven and in the film they’re making, to aspire to art so avidly that he can’t see the corn in front of him.
Hollywood doesn’t seem to know what to do with Broderick. His screen quality is that of an overanxious everyman, making him too neurotic for the typical romantic lead but too normal to play real basketcases. Broderick’s range is limited, but within that range he can be an exceptionally expressive actor. He hasn’t really broken out in a film role in years — once he outgrew the juvenile lead, what was a director to do with him? He’ll happily grow a beard for a role, as he’s done here, but it can’t hide his youthful spark. In Steven Schats, he has a role that’s perfect for him, where his huge, boyish, brown eyes really make sense, because movie love makes children of us all.
Baldwin and Broderick have an outstanding supporting cast to work with, including Toni Collette as a Suzanne Somers-tressed starlet with a screamingly funny history of excess and Calista Flockhart as Schats’ desperate-for-a-break actress girlfriend. The best, though, is Joan Cusack’s turn as a brilliantly cynical Hollywood agent. In two scenes totaling less than 10 minutes’ screen time, she delivers such a witty, raucous performance that she almost walks away with the movie.
The film loses some steam after the first act, and there’s a subplot featuring Tim Blake Nelson as Schats’ brother that doesn’t really go anywhere, but there’s enough inspired comic business tucked into every corner that it maintains your interest throughout. The script is by Jeff Nathanson, whose previous writing credits range from Speed 2: Cruise Control to Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can and The Terminal. Here he’s also directing for the first time, and he shows a remarkably sure hand and excellent comic timing. I could have done without some of his cheaper gags, such as Schats’ wheelchair-bound friend who both holds a sign reading “Break a leg!” and then goes on to say it aloud, but on the whole, The Last Shot is the funniest movie I’ve seen so far this year.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 2, 2006 | Comments ()