For how long will Hollywood continue taking potshots at itself? It's been going on from Buster Keaton's "The Cameraman" to Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard"; from Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" to Peter Bognanovich's "At Long Last Love"; from George Huang's "Swimming With Sharks" to Robert Altman's "The Player"; from John Waters' "Cecil B. DeMented" to Steve Martin's "Bowfinger" to Barry Sonnefeld's "Get Shorty"; with things as diverse as John Schlesinger's "The Day of the Locust" and Robert Zemeckis's "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" in between.
Certainly, there's enough unhinged behavior in Tinseltown to keep satirists at work for eons to come, but to produce something substantially different, something fresh and new, is another story. The 2004 Hollywood takeoff "The Last Shot" is a sweet, likeable, relatively gentle ribbing of the moviemaking community, but it's hardly the laugh-out-loud black comedy audiences might have hoped for.
It appears that its production company, Touchstone Pictures, and its distributor, Buena Vista, thought likewise, because they released the movie theatrically to a limited run on a handful of screens, where it was fated to meet an early demise. Apparently, the film's backers decided to pull up stakes and push their product through the video shops rather than further pursue the movie-house trade. It might have been their best idea.
"The Last Shot" stars Alec Baldwin, Matthew Broderick, and a competent supporting cast, so the film was bound to have some high points. And it doesn't fail for lack of trying. Maybe it fails for trying too hard. It attempts to poke fun at Hollywood, the FBI, and the Mob, in the process losing focus on just who and what it really is spoofing.
I suppose it helps to say that the story is based, more or less, on a true story--real-life events first reported in an article by Steve Fishman and adapted to the screen by writer-director Jeff Nathanson. Nathanson made "The Last Shot" his directorial debut, but his writing credits include some high-profile if not always inspiring films like "Speed 2" and "Rush Hour 2." Fortunately for him, he also has "The Terminal" to his credit.
Anyway, "The Last Shot" is, indeed, based on actual events, a covert scheme the FBI conducted in the 1980s in which they pretended to be movie producers in order to con some mobsters into making and taking bribes. The movie exaggerates for comic effect everything that went wrong with the endeavor.
Baldwin plays FBI agent Joe Devine, who as the movie opens is involved in an inept sting operation. Following this episode, he becomes despondent over his dog killing itself. "It was suicide," says the housekeeper. "On Tuesday she dug up all the flowers and then took a dump in the kitchen. I believe that was her note." Inept, despondent, or no, Joe gets the bright idea one day that if the Hollywood movie business depends upon transportation, and if the Mob controls the Teamsters and the transportation business, then maybe they can catch the Mob in an act of transgression if they infiltrate the movie business themselves. Somehow, Devine sells the idea to his bosses, who give him enough dough to plan and carry out an elaborate undercover project.
Devine first needs some coaching in the movie trade, which is where we get a funny (and uncredited) cameo from Joan Cusack as a stereotypical Hollywood producer who advises Joe on the duties of producing a motion picture. Most of what she tells him cannot be repeated in a family-oriented review. Mainly, though, she tells him that he first needs a script.
Calling himself Wells, Joe goes off in search of a script, something every person in Hollywood seems to offer him. He settles on one from a poor soul named Steven Schats, played by Matthew Broderick. The Schats character is little different from the nebbishy little accountant Broderick played on Broadway in "The Producers," so he had a head start on the role. Schats works at Grauman's Chinese Theater, runs a celebrity pet kennel, and lives with a temperamental, aspiring actress played by Calista Flockhart. Schats is a nobody who suddenly believes he can be a somebody based on a script he and his brother (Tim Blake Nelson) wrote about their recently deceased sister. Joe tells Schats that he can also direct the movie, make all the casting decisions, and have the final cut. It's an offer Schats cannot refuse. Heck, he can't even believe it.
But here's the thing: The gangsters that Joe is trying to nail live and work in Rhode Island; Schats's script is set in Arizona. That's what movies are all about, though, right? They'll turn Providence, Rhode Island, into the Arizona desert. A landfill will substitute for the Grand Canyon. That's a funny bit.
The fellow Joe is after is a minor-league mobster named Tommy Sanz, played by Tony Shalhoub. Tommy is so evil his ex-wife tried to light him on fire one night while he was sleeping. They divorced a year later. Now, as he explains it, he's got a bit of a complexion problem.
Still, the series of eccentric characters doesn't end there. There's Toni Collette as Emily French, a glamorous, aging actress who hears about the production and wants a part in it. She's a typical washed-up bombshell who'll do anything for a role, like providing a urine sample in the middle of a restaurant to prove she's no longer taking drugs. There's old satirist Buck Henry as Lonnie Bosco, an old friend of Schats, who accepts the job of being his agent. There's Ray Liotta as Jack Devine, Joe's brother and a Deputy Director of the FBI who is as straight-arrow a cop as they come. And there's James Rebhorn as Abe White, a Director of the FBI who falls for Joe's cockeyed plan.
Naturally, the moviemaking plan goes awry, and the deeper Joe gets into it, the more he comes to believe he really is going to produce a movie. In fact, he even persuades his superiors that they can nail more than just a little fish like Tommy Sanz; they can go right to the top and possibly nail Mafia chief John Gotti as well. It's a matter of the clothes making the man. If you think you are, you are. Joe acts like a producer, and he begins to think he is a producer.
And where does this leave the little sad sack, Steven Schats? With the audience feeling pretty sorry for him, actually. The more he's taken advantage of--the more the FBI leads him down a fairy-tale path--the more we realize he's going to have to take a big fall eventually. His bubble will inevitably have to burst. But he's such a nice guy, such a sweetheart of a fellow, we can't help feeling it's just not fair. This doesn't make for the best comedy material.
"The Last Shot" tries vainly to mock Hollywood types and their grandiose plans, and as I've suggested, it's full of good intentions. But it's nothing we haven't seen before and better. The movie doesn't have enough outright funny gags (I laughed maybe three times in ninety-three minutes) to qualify it as a memorable piece of comedy, but it does keep one intermittently smiling, which is more than can be said of a lot of so-called comedies from the Hollywood formula factory. A good deal of location shooting in and around Hollywood and Providence lends a reasonable verisimilitude to the proceedings, and a few famous people, like Russell Means and Pat Morita, playing themselves adds to the authenticity. Yet none of it can make up for the flat spots, of which there are many.
Baldwin and Broderick work well together; they just don't have much to play off of once the plot's initial premise is established. If I were still a school teacher, I'd give "The Last Shot" an B for its aspirations and a D for its execution, resulting in a movie that deserves a respectable C.
"The Last Shot" is rated R for some raunchy situations and even raunchier language.
Most of the movie's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio is retained in an anamorphic widescreen transfer, and most of what appears on screen looks good. The colors are bright and deep, thanks to a reasonably high bit rate, but along with the reliable hues comes a small degree of roughness and grain. Inner definition and detail are probably about what they were in the original print, average to soft. But solid black levels make ultimate object delineation look pretty good. I did not notice any particular instances of digital artifacts, pixilation, moiré effects, edge enhancement, or the like.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio does just about everything that's expected of it, but as this is not a big action adventure, there isn't a lot for it to do. The front channels are used primarily for dialogue, the midrange sounding a tad hard, bright, and forward; but that helps, I suppose, to clarify the characters' speech. The stereo spread in the front channels is adequate, while the information supplied to the surround channels is sparse. Mostly, the surrounds are used for minor musical ambiance enhancement and for a couple of helicopter flyovers that occur near the end of the story. There is no need for wide dynamics or deep bass, so there isn't much in these departments, either.
There is the usual assortment of bonus items on the disc, but nothing that might induce one to buy the DVD just to see or hear them. The mandatory audio commentary is done by the director, Jeff Nathanson, and the star, Matthew Broderick. Most of what I listened to seemed perfunctory, straightforward, informative if uninspired. They're a pleasant pair, but their remarks were like the movie itself, friendly and sometimes amusing but, in the end, unfulfilling. Next, there's a twelve-minute featurette, "Inspired By Actual Events," that reunites the real FBI agent on the case with the two men he conned into making a picture with him. It's a strange and somewhat strained reunion, but it demonstrates how much the finished movie was similar to yet changed from the facts of the case. After that there are four deleted scenes, not much different to my mind from anything that remained in the movie; followed by the most interesting piece of business of all, a series of segments called "Robert Evans Presents." It seems that the original idea was to have a famous Hollywood producer, in this case Robert Evans ("Chinatown"), narrate various bits of the movie, an idea later dropped. You can watch the segments separately or integrated into the full motion picture. Then, there's a brief "Joan Cusack Montage," which presents some of her shots that were cut. The extras conclude with Sneak Peeks at half a dozen other Buena Vista releases; eighteen scene selections, with a chapter insert in the keep case; English as only available spoken language; and French and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.
It's hard not to like the movie, but it's hard to find a lot to praise about it, too. "The Last Shot" comes off as an adequate little comedy for late-night viewing but nothing I'd want to consider buying when so many genuine comedy classics are at hand. The story tries to make up for its lack of laughs by offering a series of quirky characters and bizarre moments, a tactic that works for a while but runs out of steam about halfway through the movie. It's a friendly picture, but nowhere near a great one.