As I watched The Last Thing He Wanted on Netflix, it occurred to me that smoking cigarettes and slamming down phones is no substitute for a personality.
The Last Thing He Wanted stars Anne Hathaway as Elena McMahon and, over the course of the movie, she smokes a lot of cigarettes and slams down a lot of phones. That’s because Elena is supposed to be a veteran D.C. journalist. She works for The Atlantic Post, which is an awkward name for a newspaper. (In the novel on which this film was based, Elena worked for The Washington Post but I assume that plot point was changed to avoid upsetting Jeff Bezos. That’s the sort of thing that gets this film off to a bad start.) Hathaway is never exactly believable as a hard-boiled journalist who is known for uncovering government scandals and reporting from war zones. She is, however, believable as a talented but miscast actress who watched a lot of old journalism movies before showing up on the set of The Last Thing He Wanted. The end result is a performance that feels like cosplay.
Anyway, the film itself is a mess. It takes place in 1984 and starts out with Elena getting yanked off of her usual Central America beat and assigned to instead cover the presidential campaign. This leads to a lot of scenes of Elena lighting cigarettes and slamming down phones while talking about how difficult it is to be a journalist when you’re working for a spineless organization like the Atlantic Post.
Elena is estranged from her father, a dissolute drunk named Dick. Dick is played by Willem DaFoe, who deals with the fact that he really doesn’t have much of a character to play by chewing up every piece of scenery that he can get his hands on. (At times, it seems like Willem DaFoe has been replaced by someone doing a poorly conceived Willem DaFoe impersonation.) Dick is suffering from dementia and he keeps forgetting that his wife is dead. Dick needs Elena to do something for him. It turns out that Dick has set up a “huge deal.” Elena assumes that it must be a drug deal but it turns out that Dick is actually a small-time arms dealer. So now, Elena is transporting weaponry through Central America and — surprise! — it all links back to the very story that her editors at the Atlantic Post didn’t want her to cover in the first place.
Soon, Elena is flying all over the place and meeting a rogue’s gallery of anti-communist rebels and arms dealers. In a different film, they would all be fascinating characters but, in this one, it just comes across as being more cosplay. Ben Affleck shows up a few times, playing some sort of Washington D.C. fixer and he’s absolutely the worst actor to cast in a film like this because the film’s vaguely-defined liberalism brings out his worst instincts as a performer. The character’s written to be an enigmatic rogue but Affleck appears to be incapable of playing him as being anything other than just a one-note Republican. (Whenever Affleck is cast in a role like this, you can see him thinking, “How would Matt Damon play this scene?”) Toby Jones also makes an appearance and you’re excited to see him until you realize that he’s just going to be recycling his Truman Capote imitation from Infamous to no great effect. There’s a lot of good performers in The Last Thing He Wanted but they’re left stranded by a script that doesn’t seem to know why any of them are there. It all leads to an absolutely terrible ending, one that proves that combining voice over narration with slow motion is not always the brilliant narrative technique that some directors believe it to be.
The Last Thing He Wanted was directed and co-written by Dee Rees and it has all of the flaws but none of the strengths of Rees’s previous Netflix film, Mudbound. Mudbound was frequently ponderous and predictable but it was redeemed by some beautiful images and some unexpectedly nuanced performances. The Last Thing He Wanted is ponderous without being much else.