There’s a fast-food analogy for writer-director Andrew Cohn’s “The Last Shift” that’s too obvious to pass up.
It’s gassy, not as nutritious as advertised, and in the end not at all filling.
This is the debut fictional feature for the documentary filmmaker, and he found a little-filmed blue collar milieu and a winning cast to tell his story of marginal lives and “white privilege” at the lower end of the economic spectrum. But he blows it.
Veteran character actor Richard Jenkins (“The Shape of Water,” “The Visitor”) has a rare lead role as Stan, “Stan the Man,” an Albion, Michigan legend at Oscar’s Chicken & Fish.
It’s a regional fast food joint that has held on through decades of challenges by every new chain that’s opened in that “strip” that every town in America has — the highway where KFC, McDonald’s, Wendy’s and their ilk peddle their wares, side-by-side-by-side.
Oscar’s has held on by being cheap and never changing. Who knows how long ago their big illuminated marquee blew out? Never got it fixed.
Stan’s a “legend” because he’s held down the graveyard shift, 10-6, “drive-thru only,” for decades. And now, after 38 years, he’s calling it quits.
Little pieces of his character emerge. He grew up here, went to the high school and isn’t above joshing with the winless football team’s slackers who pull up at his window. He knows everybody.
“I didn’t get this smart by being stupid.”
Everybody laughs, and they’re not necessarily laughing with him. He’s a town character, scraping by on a low-paying job because he’s sort of on-the-spectrum.
He’s not smart, never finished high school, and the fact that he hangs with his old high school buddy Dale (Ed O’Neill), and both of them are well over ’60 tells us they never left town, never outgrew the place and that Dale has a lot of tolerance for Stan’s dopiness.
Hanging out with the guys means beer, but not for Stan. He’s a Diet Squirt man.
Shane Paul McGhie of TV’s “Deputy” and “Greenleaf” plays the guy Stan’s supposed to train to take over. Stan’s boss Shazz (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) is adamant about that. Stan may have been there forever, reliable to a fault. But he can be replaced. He’s not so sure.
“Some people turn up their sleeves, and some don’t turn up at all.”
The kid, Jevon, is witty and pretty, dropping droll wisecracks as Stan walks him through “where the magic happens,” and stresses declares strict separation of chicken and fish prep.
“Separate but equal,” Jevon cracks.
Stan’s got a sixth sense about what kind of dipping sauce people will select at the drive-thru window. He’s “the sauce whisperer,” Jevon offers. Nothing. Over Stan’s head.
But Jevon needs this job more than his careless attitude allows. He’s on probation. He did something stupid, and now he’s got a record. He’s also a baby daddy, which at his age and with his promise, counts as a second “stupid thing.”
Birgundi Baker plays Sydney, his girlfriend — just as smart, and years more mature about what they need to do to fulfill their promise and raise their little boy, Carter. Jevon’s still slacking off, hitting the chronic with his boys.
He can dismiss Stan with an, “If I’m still here at your age, put me in the ground.” But what will he do to change his fate? He can’t even pee in a cup without losing his probation.
Jevon tries to alert Stan to the way he’s been exploited all these years. Stan tries to get Jevon to take the job seriously, read the employee’s handbook and get the details right. Don’t serve an undercooked burger. Do be polite.
Their back and forth gets into race and “privilege.” Stan’s under-developed “future plans” and Jevon’s inability to even think about a future collide. And we’ll see where “privilege” gets either of them.
Cohn brings a documentarian’s eye to this humblest of workplaces, but his character development leaves a lot to be desired. Stan is both a “type” and a clumsily articulated version of that “type.” When you cast a 70something as a still-struggling-to-meet-the-rent fast food worker, you’re looking at a tragedy, not a quirky comedy with a message.
Jenkins is one of my favorite actors, but this strikes me as one he should have passed on.
McGhie comes off better, but his character’s background is sloppily sketched-in. Are we laying his missteps in botching a promising future on pot, self-created “pressure” from poor decisions, or being too clever for his own good?
A little of all that is in play, but it doesn’t really work. We can’t figure it out from watching his family dynamic or the way he relates to Miss All Business, Sydney.
That said, “The Last Shift” is still an intriguing failure, a project that started with good intentions, the KFC Cheeto’s sandwich of indie cinema.
MPAA Rating: R for language and some drug use
Cast: Richard Jenkins, Shane Paul McGhie, Birgundi Baker, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Ed O’Neill
Credits: Written and directed by Andrew Cohn. A Sony release.
Running time: 1:30