Joan Didion’s cluttered, convoluted pot-boiler of a thriller “The Last Thing He Wanted” becomes a cluttered, convoluted mess of a movie for Netflix.
Who knew? Certainly not director and co-screenwriter Dee Rees, who brought the hilariously over-rated “Mudbound” to the streaming service. She never saw it coming. Apparently.
A nonsensically twisty take on the muddled geo-politics of 1984, when journalists couldn’t get America interested in the Reagan administration’s hysterical fear of “socialism” south of the border and its illegal support of Nicaragua’s “Contra” rebels, “Last Thing” is about guns for cocaine smuggling, shady operators in and out of government and a “Pennsylvania Ave. reporter with a moral compass.”
She’s played by Oscar winner Anne Hathaway. She took the role to bite off big chunks of that famous Didion dialogue. She scripted the Streisand “Star is Born,” “Play it As It Lays” and a minor classic — “True Confessions.”
Nobody tells Elena McMahon (Hathaway) that she’s in over her head, sniffing around a story no one — including her editor — wants. It’s about “selling a few third rate military leftovers to second rate revolutionaries at, I’m guessing, first rate mark-ups.”
Elena and her photographer colleague (Rosie Perez) have been in conflict zones. She’s seen stuff. So when her disreputable, estranged father (Willem Dafoe) reconnects long enough for his dementia to require her to complete “last thing” “big deal” for him, she grimaces, but never flinches.
In an odyssey that takes her from Miami to Nicaragua to Costa Rica to Antigua, she hunts for clues that aren’t readily apparent to the viewer, stumbling by with her instincts as this or that faction seems to be gunning for her, setting her up or stealing her passport.
There’s a government “ambassador at large” (Ben Affleck), a gun runner go-between (Edi Gathegi) and a gay resort owner (Toby Jones). Can she trust any of them?
I should mention that this, the meat of the movie, takes over an hour to set up. First, our reporter has to do a lot of what reporters do in movies — yelling at her editor for having to cover Reagan’s “victory lap” ’84 campaign.
“The incumbent cowboy is already neck deep in four years of deceit!”
She’s got to placate her boarding school daughter with promises of letting her return to Malibu. Hah. Right. On a reporter’s paycheck.
All the while, she’s the subject of the ire of the Secretary of State, George Schultz (Julian Gamble) who won’t be convinced she can be used as “the bullhorn” for administration policy via Affleck’s character’s sales pitch.
It stops making sense about thirty minutes in and never recovers.
Director Rees let herself be seduced by the character, a tough smart broad in a tight spot, and by all that juicy dialogue, some of it delivered in voice-over narration.
“Some real things happened lately…I wanted to know why.”
Let’s hope neither she nor Netflix lets that happen again.
MPAA Rating: R for language, some violence, disturbing images and brief nudity
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Willem Dafoe, Rosie Perez, Edi Gathegi, Toby Jones and Ben Affleck
Credits: Directed by Dee Rees, script by Marcos Villalobos and Dee Rees, based on a Joan Didion novel. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:55