The Last Thing He Wanted is based on a novel by Joan Didion, now a mystery drama film adapted by Dee Rees, starring Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck and Willem Dafoe. The story latches onto a veteran D.C. journalist, who becomes the unwitting subject in the very story she’s trying to break. Accidental or not, gonzo journalism becomes the driving force in this film about a political journalist who gets in too deep handling her father’s sketchy business affairs following the death of her mother in 1984.
Anne Hathaway is a strong and elegant actress who has proven herself over and over again with many immersive and wholehearted dramatic turns. While she’s wielded strong performances in everything from Rachel Getting Married to Les Miserables, Hathaway has rarely toyed with political mystery thrillers. More recently her forte has been in the realm of fantasy featuring in The Dark Knight Rises, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Interstellar, Colossal with The Witches on the horizon. As competent and gifted as she is, the Oscar-winning actress hasn’t settled into a steady or comfortable rhythm.
Her latest role finds her playing Elena McMahon, at the time of Reagan America where drug and gun-running syndicates supplied Contras. Hathaway is good but a bit too cool to identify with, not getting the nuanced cues or time to draw our empathy or full support. Dee Rees has demonstrated her ability as a director in Mudbound, but despite her talent, The Last Thing He Wanted is as mercurial as its title. “Mercurial” is probably an overstatement because the title is probably more indifferent than anything else but sets the tone for this misfire of an espionage thriller.
“Undercover in 1984 like Miami Vice without the pastels.”
Set in the ’80s, the adaptation questions political authority as America’s insidious intervention in foreign affairs comes under the spotlight. You wonder how the same film would have played if it had been made shortly after the novel’s release. Similarly poised to the Jeremy Renner film, Kill the Messenger, and even capturing some of the rebellious spirit that propelled American Made with Tom Cruise, this mystery thriller looks and sounds the part. Leaning on its star power in Hathaway, Dafoe and Affleck, these typically heavy-hitters are subdued and often benched, giving Hathaway the job of carrying an unwieldy story.
The Last Thing He Wanted has scope and strong production values to match its cast, creating a world of drug cartels, intrepid journalists and political intrigue. While it tries to capture the Zeitgeist, the storytelling is muddled and the edit is so quick-paced, you often don’t get a chance to settle into any scene. The upbeat pacing and visuals are compelling but it’s as if an entire season of television has been condensed into a snippy feature film. Edited as if to keep a cat entertained, the plot points simply don’t add up to anything substantial as South American drug cartel cliches rack up with nothing to offer but style and panache.
As much as it improves with time, this disconnectedness makes the experience detached, intriguing but ultimately confusing. It’s a great disservice to all the experience and talent attached to the production, making you wonder where it all went wrong? Perhaps the story would have been better served as a mini-series or maybe the screenplay should’ve spent more time connecting the dots. As a mindless bit of entertainment, you could do worse, especially if you appreciate the stars… but it’s nowhere near as suspenseful as Kill the Messenger or fun as American Made.
The bottom line: Mind-boggling