Another Netflix-acquired Sundance film, “The Last Thing He Wanted “from director Dee Rees, is one of this year’s most tiresome movies. The story is adopted from the Joan Didion novel of the same name and failed to ever fully find its footing as the gripping drama it wanted to be.
Anne Hathaway stars as journalist Elena McMahon. She’s been working the last few years on covering the burgeoning contra scandal in 1980s Nicaragua until her boss moves her onto the Reagen re-election campaign trail. Upset by the switch she’s encouraged by Alma (Rosie Perez), her co-worker at The Washington Post to use this time continue her piece on the contras. Her piercing questions and sneaky research tactics catch the attention government officials like Treat Morrison (Ben Affleck). In the midst of the campaign she’s called home to the news that her father Dick (Willem Dafoe) has fallen ill. Despite being estranged for most of her childhood she steps in to care for him in his last days. During his time in and out of the hospital his shady past is finally revealed, he has been working as an illegal arms dealer. Fearing he will lose out on the biggest deal of his career Dick asks Elena to step in as his counter-part to help facilitate a deal in Costa Rica selling army surplus weapons. In a bid to get closer to the story she accepts this task and finds herself embroiled in an ever expanding series of complications. Around every corner is another dangerous character and an even riskier trade. Eventually Elena finds herself too wrapped up in this world as she continues to run throughout Costa Rica looking to secure the deal.
Everything about this story is set-up to be exciting. An international scandal, spies, drug smugglers, secretive villas in the jungle, and Willem Dafoe slyly drinking in a bar while talking about his ex-wife. But none of the moments that were meant to be thrilling ever really land. At all times Anne Hathaway is on screen she is pouting in a draped earth toned blouse, typically framed by an exotic Caribbean background, while spouting off cliche and hollow lines. Worse still is her monotone narration meant to exude a jaded and earned disillusionment of the world but really it sounds more like a college student after they read their first Hunter S. Thompson book. The entire first hour felt like filler that barely set-up the crammed in twists of the second half. So much space and time was wasted setting the mood (with admittedly well crafted shots) that the film tediously slid in details later on meant to build out the characters including Elena’s battle with breast cancer, the true nature of her relationship with her family, and her “surprise” lover. All the while random characters popped in to give Elena information when needed and then disappeared in a way that felt lazy. This is perhaps a great reason why some novels should never be adapted. There were so many interesting characters whose potentially rich backstories were either lightly touched upon or skipped over entirely. It also felt dated in a way it didn’t need to be. While the book is set in the 80’s and written in the 90’s, the dialogue could’ve been refreshed to help modernize the stiff interactions between characters.
One of the more frustrating elements of this film was the mediocre performances given by most of its star cast. Anne Hathaway did her best job at playing gritty but it still felt shallow and unsure. Elena’s mother is dead, she’s divorced, her career is stifled, she’s away from her daughter, and her father is revealed to be a criminal. Her story arc has so much built-in pathos that felt ignored in her portrayal in favor of an attempt at a steely reserve. Ben Affleck’s character felt like he was pasted into the story to add intrigue and his acting was checked out and strained. Rosie Perez was so severely underutilized in this role its criminal. The majority of her scenes were her sleepily answering the phone in the middle of the night to a frantic Elena. Willem Dafoe was playing a caricature of Willem Dafoe’s past roles which was especially frustrating after seeing his powerhouse performance in last year’s “The Lighthouse”. The rest of the cast was given limited time and space to really impact the film.
The story ends with a laughably predictable twist that perfectly summarizes the laughably mundane nature of this film.