Not even half a dozen Oscar winners and nominees can save a story that manages to be both formulaic and convoluted
“It’s just a hard book to adapt, but it’s a book that I love.” That’s what Academy Award nominee Dee Rees told The Los Angeles Times about her new film The Last Thing He Wanted, adapted from Joan Didion’s novel, and reader, she isn’t wrong.
The film follows Elena McMahon (Academy Award winner Anne Hathaway) a journalist stationed in El Salvador where she covers Contras until her office is closed down after a raid. Hathaway provides narration for this utterly confusing plot about Iran-Contra, but her dialogue, and that of her fellow actors is at a level of cheesiness unheard in recent adult dramas. Some highlights include, “The operation is going to blow up… and not in my face” and “you spit when you talk” with “you love it” in response. I digress. McMahon’s pugnacious father, Richard (Academy Award nominee Willem Dafoe), falls ill, causing Elena to take a leave of absence to take care of him. Richard lives a nomadic life and was never there for Elena. We know this because there’s a terrible scene of Elena reading Richard for his failings. The dialogue here is heavy on exposition in the worst way: it felt like a big budget TV movie, which is Netflix’s real bread and butter anyway. How many Roma’s have they made? To be fair—it takes To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before to pay for The Irishman.
This adaptation of The Last Thing He Wanted has a lot of mystery but little intrigue. We learn Richard is an arms dealer to South America. Unable to take his final trip, Elena’s excitement at returning to the continent leads her to finish her dad’s business. When she discovers weapons are being traded for cocaine, Elena makes a daring exit, but not before the movie provides it’s only surprise: the Contras blow up a dog to test Richard’s landmines, waking up the lady asleep next to me at the Eccles theater. I was hoping this would jumpstart the movie so the pieces would start making sense, alas, it was not.
Hathaway gives a performance worthy of a Humphrey Bogart impressionist. She isn’t bad here, but like everyone involved above the line in this production, it is not her finest hour. Academy Award-winner Ben Affleck plays Treat Morrison, a politician with ties to the Contras and a crisis junkie who inserts himself into notable foreign assassinations on behalf of the United States government. Rounding out the cast is Academy Award nominee Rosie Perez as Alma, Elena’s photo-journalist friend who is as wise about the world as Elena is eager to uncover its secrets. Perez gives the best performance in the film and it’s possible that’s the case because she has so little to do. We see her taking pictures of dead bodies in El Salvador as Elena investigates the scene. Alma plays a support role for Elena throughout the film. The film opens with her taking pictures of dead bodies in El Salvador as Elena investigates the scene. And it’s Alma who connects the dots between Treat and the foreign scandals across many presidential administrations.
Dee Rees’ direction doesn’t help clarify what she and Marco Villalobos adapted for the screenplay. The convoluted web of connections between Elena’s work, family and government speed across the screen at breakneck pace. Joan Didion’s novel is similarly structured, but what’s needed here is transliteration to cinematic language, not dictation. The most frustrating thing about the movie is how much it makes the audience want to care but never delivers the story, visuals, or performances to keep you hooked. In a decidedly genre-heavy movie, it’s not too much for an already easily distracted Netflix audience member to ask for bits to hang onto; something to make us care about what we’re seeing. Instead, the movie plays like an awards season cast-off. We’re supposed to care what’s happening because it’s about Iran-Contra and that’s important. It’s a big issue movie about an issue he History Channel covers in about five minutes.
If this were made by one of the legacy Hollywood studios, its February release would be telling. Somehow, The Last Thing He Wanted became an event film with a big Sundance premiere. Sadly, it doesn’t deliver on anyone’s talents; everyone involved can do a lot better. We’ve seen it before and I am confident Dee Rees has years of great work left to share with the world, but this isn’t it.
This review is from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Netflix will release The Last Thing He Wanted globally on February 21, 2020.
Joshua is an entertainment journalist with bylines at The Film Stage, Out Magazine, Indiewire, and The Playlist. He is based in New York City and is a voting member of GALECA. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram at @joshencinias.