A film review by Craig J. Koban March 22, 2020

THE LAST THING HE WANTED j
  

2020, R, 116 mins.

 

Anne Hathaway as Elena McMahon  /  Ben Affleck as Treat Morrison  /  Willem Dafoe as Richard McMahon  /  Edi Gathegi as Jones  /  Rosie Perez as Alma

Directed by Dee Rees  /  Written by Rees and Marco Villalobos, based on the novel by Joan Didion

ORIGINAL FILM

The new Netflix thriller THE LAST THING HE WANTED is the kind of ridiculously messy and endlessly convoluted film that feels like the makers should handed out narrative road maps beforehand to everyone that wishes to watch it.  

Based on the Joan Didion novel of the same name, this Dee Rees directed affair seems like it was assembled out of multiple ingredients haphazardly thrown into a story blender and without any idea as to how to mix them fluidly together.  THE LAST THING HE WANTED achingly tries to be many things: An investigative journalism pot-boiler, a 1980s historical and political thriller and a father/daughter drama, with none of them paying off with any level of satisfying coherence.  If one strips away a pretty committed performance by Oscar winner Anne Hathaway contained within then there's simply not a lot to recommend here.  THE LAST THING HE WANTED has a potentially intriguing and ambitious tale to tell about a reporter in deep personal and occupational crisis mode that's trapped within larger forces beyond her scope and control, but the resulting final product is so dull and lifeless that it inspires ample watch checking instead of intoxicating engagement.

THE LAST THING HE WANTED tells the inanely labyrinthine (and mostly nonsensical) story of Atlanta Post reporter Elena McMahon (Hathaway), who's shown in the opening stages of the film doing some investigative work in Nicaragua alongside her partner in Alma ( Rosie Perez), during which time they are forced to flee the country due to severe unrest.  The film then awkwardly segues back to her being on the beat on the home front, now being forced largely against her will to cover the 1984 presidential election (which she feels is beneath her standards).  One of the central problems with THE LAST THING HE WANTED is the chaotic, almost ricocheting nature of its scripting, which zips from one locale and plot point to the next without fully immersing us in any necessary expositional inertia.  Editorially, this film suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder, much to the increased confusion of viewers.

 

 

Elena decides to quit her job covering the election front, mostly to care for her ailing father Richard (Willem Dafoe, in an underwritten role, but nevertheless one of the other performance bright spots here), who requires some aid especially when his wife has died and he seems on death's door himself.  The story then takes some even weirder detours, which culminates in Elena's own investigation into weapons smuggling having some direct ties to her dear old and withering away father.  Through a series of events that the film struggles to make some semblance of sense to audience members, Elena ends up serving double duties as both a reporter in the trenches as well as a key figure in the arms dealing of the U.S. Government in Central America.  Throughout the course of the remainder of the film, the world weary and increasingly frazzled Elena has to deal with an obligatory number of power players pulling the strings on both sides, including shadowy CIA Agent Treat Morrison (a nearly comatose Ben Affleck), whose diplomatic allegiances seem questionable at best.  One of the issues with this character is that (a) he's barely developed at all, (b) Affleck is mostly sleep walking through his going-through-the-motions performance, and (c) he's more of a lame plot device than a flesh and blood human being, who's arbitrarily thrown into the story here and there without any perceptible rhyme or reason.  One of the more laughably offensive subplots involving Treat is a frustratingly tacked on romance angle between himself and Elena.  Why a professional women as headstrong as her would ever entertain the notion of going to bed with someone like Treat - whose motives and trustworthiness are respectively murky and lacking at best - is one of the this film's more baffling and logic defying mysteries.

At least Hathaway shows up here and gives a thoroughly credible performance about a tirelessly determined reporter searching for the truth and answers in a highly evolving and dangerous world around her, but the scripting built around her seems laughably misguided at times (aspects, for example, of her personal history, like a fractured relationship with her young daughter and her bout dealing with breast cancer are almost treated like afterthoughts here).  Dafoe, as alluded to earlier, has some fun playing his mentally untangled and sick father character (he has one great moment when a doctor asks him if he knows who the current president is to evaluate his cognitive state, leaving Richard amusingly rattling off dozens of presidents names - in historical order - leading up to Reagan).  Regrettably, good acting from a couple of A-listers can't make up for this film's unwieldy and almost amateurish scripting, which piles on one confusing and incongruent scene after enough to the point where I just wanted to throw my hands in the air out of annoyance.  The core story thread of Elena navigating the mysterious waters of her father's arms deals makes basic plotting sense, to be sure, but so much of this film just bounces around from one underdeveloped tangent to the next.  This film is nearly two hours long, but felt like three-plus.  And as forward momentum seems to inconsistently go from one false start to the next, everything seems to conveniently culminate in a finale that hopes to tie everything together and explain all to flabbergasted viewers.   I felt relief that the film was over, but never felt dramatically placated by its feeble sense of closure.

One of the more shameful aspects of THE LAST THING HE WANTED is how its Central American characters - who should be pivotal in this overall story - are basically presented as cardboard cutout props lacking any definable characteristics, outside of being bloodthirsty killers or being vulnerable sufferers at the expense of all of this.  It leaves Elana's journalistic endeavors lacking in tangible interest.  The more the film progressed the less compelled I was about anything transpiring throughout it.  As the end credits rolled by I was left asking myself what was this film about and what mattered in all of this?  Everything is so sparsely handled here; it's like a vast chunk of the film was left on the cutting room floor.  It's all kind of shameful, because Dee Rees is a solid filmmaker (see her superb MUDBOUND), and we desperately need more female centric films involving lead stars and directors leading the inclusive charge.  Considering the robust talent on display in front of and behind the camera, I was thoroughly taken aback by the lackluster execution here.  Those looking for an engaging portal into hard hitting journalism during a tense period during Regan era America - that also coincided with the country recklessly stretching its imperialistic muscles during said time - will be monumentally disappointed in THE LAST THING HE WANTED.  

The last thing I would recommend anyone to do is to add it to your Netflix queue. 

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