"The Last Shot" tells a fascinating true story, one originally written about in a Details
article by Steve Fishman, in which the FBI used an aspiring filmmaker's screenplay as a front for a mob sting operation. The writer was led to believe his script, the one he had only dreamt of turning into a movie, was being fast-tracked by Hollywood into production. He was wrong. A sad account, yes, for all those struggling filmmakers out there praying and hoping for a big break, but also a potential source for some ripe comedic material. Such is the case with "The Last Shot," the smooth directing debut of writer Jeff Nathanson (2002's "Catch Me If You Can
"), a brassy satire of moviemaking and all of the shortcuts taken and unforeseen pitfalls that work their way into it. The picture is often hilarious, sometimes rudely so, and its eccentric ensemble of characters hold a forthright charm that carry them through the rougher third-act passages, when things turn pretty serious.
In an unorthodox attempt to capture a head mob boss, FBI agent Joe Devine (Alec Baldwin) heads to Hollywood under the guise of a hot-shot producer and hand-picks a screenplay called "Arizona" by lowly Grauman's Chinese Theater employee Steve Schats (Matthew Broderick) to turn into a respectably budgeted feature film. Steve, who had all but given up his dreams of stardom, is all the more nonplussed to discover that he will get to direct himself. Only, there isn't going to be a movie at all, and not Steve, not the crew, and not the actors, including fading starlet Emily French (Toni Collette), have any ideas they are mere pawns in a bigger scheme to snare the mob.
"The Last Shot" has a breezy tone and a wicked edge, good enough to make for a satisfying 90 minutes but not quite madcap or tightly developed enough to be anything more. While Joe's goal of catching the mob is clearly defined, less conspicuous is how, exactly, the making of the movie is going to aid in his work. The film, which mostly depicts all of the pre-production work of Steve's unknowingly faux motion picture, also neglects the countless uproarious possibilities that might have gone with a bunch of complete amateurs trying to make a Hollywood feature. So, just as filming commences and the momentum begins to build, the story is wrapped up and cuts things a little short.
Nevertheless, there is some sharp, unanticipatedly brazen comic gold leading up to that paltry finale. In an uncredited two-scene cameo, the invaluable Joan Cusack (2003's "The School of Rock
") is brilliantly funny as a brutally honest Hollywood exec who coaches Joe and his fellow undercover co-workers on the ins and outs of the film business. Gags concerning a lonely dog who allegedly commits suicide, actress Emily French's overblown death-scene audition and ensuing desperation for the lead role, and even the making of "Jaws" keep the laughs coming in the first hour at a fast clip. As for the very notion of forcing Steve to shoot the desert-set "Arizona" in the very New England-looking Rhode Island town of Providence, the sight of them trying to scout locations to stand in for the Colorado River and even the Grand Canyon is priceless.
In his meatiest role since 1999's "Election
," Matthew Broderick is delectably charming and wide-eyed as Steve Schats, who is so dumbstruck to be making a movie that he doesn't stop and realize none of it is real. Broderick makes Steve innocently good-hearted and naivebut not stupida believable portrait of a man technically unskilled in making movies but with a love for the cinema that could possibly transcend his lack of experience. Alec Baldwin (2003's "The Cooler
") makes a solid match for Broderick as Joe Devine, a veritable nice guy who grows to regret his deceptions and fears having to tell Steve the truth. Baldwin does nothing wrong here, and is superb at playing dead-pan, but there is something about his look that makes him not seem like an FBI agent. Actually, there are times when it is easy to forget who he is playing and uncontrollably think of him as being a part of the mob. It is no fault of his, probably having more to do with how unexplicitly his character is written.
As actress Emily French, once an Oscar-winner who turned to a short stint in porn and is looking for a step back up to the A-list, Toni Collette (2004's "Connie and Carla
") is fabulously droll with nary a wink or a smile. Collette wonderfully plays into the general stereotypes of Hollywood actresses while somehow avoiding cliches; her Emily is so content and nonchalant within the realm of her own world that she doesn't even realize how outlandish she really is. Finally, Calista Flockhart (1999's "A Midsummer Night's Dream
") is intentionally insufferable, but insufferable all the same, as Steve's girlfriend, Valerie, an animal-hating, borderline-psychotic wannabe actress. Flockhart relishes the un-PC role, a big step away from "Ally McBeal," but her character is akin to fingernails on a blackboard.
In its satirical look at making a big film in a small town, "The Last Shot" resembles David Mamet's 2000 entry, "State and Main," lacking Mamet's pitch-perfect, world-class dialogue but probably a little more humorously clever in its ideas. There is a nagging sense, though, even as it entertains and concocts some slyly acidic, in-the-know jokes, that it is holding back from being the encompassing Hollywood mockery it intends to be. The premise should have been more tenaciously developed, rather than an excuse to attach jokes to, and the third-act round-up does slow things down. The final scene, however, is kind of mournful in a positive way, effectively bringing to a close the journeys Steve and Joe have been on and showing the respect that has grown between them. Putting the film's overall quality in the terms of the money-hungry Hollywood mindset, "The Last Shot" is an amusing, likable sleeper hit, but not an out-of-the-stratosphere blockbuster.