Last Orders is Masterful Ensemble Acting



Directed by Fred Schepisi

Columbia TriStar, 106 minutes, R (language), in Cockney English





Last Orders is an adaptation of Graham Swift’s 1996 Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name. It is an excellent example of how well Brits do ensemble movies. Of course, it helps to cast with actors of the gravitas of Michael Caine, Tom Courtney, Bob Hoskins, David Hemmings, Helen Mirren, and Ray Winstone.


Director Fred Schepisi wisely made Last Orders as a classic “small film,” meaning it doesn’t try to dazzle you with intricacies of plot, cinematography, or production. Rather, it is a character study of friends whose relationship is kept together as much by inertia as common interests. The title holds a dual meaning. In British pubs it’s the equivalent of last call; that is, the bar tender’s announcement that it’s the final chance to order drinks before closing. In this case, though, it also means a duty. Jack Dodds (Caine) has died and his old compadres are charged with taking his ashes from London to Margate to be scattered in the sea.


In other words, The Last Call is a road trip that’s filled with flashbacks, squabbles, remembrances, irreverence, and poignancy. As we quickly surmise, Jack, a former butcher, was the glue that kept unlikely associates together. Jack wasn’t a saint, but he was a good person, and the same is questionable about the company he kept. In World War II he battled alongside Ray “Lucky” Johnson (Hoskins), a punter who spends most of his time wagering on horses. He is joined by Lenny (Hemmings), a former boxer who didn’t leave his fists in the ring, and Jack’s pretentious son Vince (Winstone), a dealer in posh used cars who–to his annoyance–is treated as if he’s still a kid by the others. There’s also  Vic Tucker, a mortician who tries his best–mostly unsuccessfully–to play the role of ego to Ray’s superego and the ids of the other two. Along the way they meet up with Jack’s widow Amy (Mirren), who is on her way to visit her developmentally challenged daughter who has been institutionalized for over 50 years.


The journey is marked by numerous aforementioned flashbacks (with younger actors as stand-ins). As is often the case with youth, none of them had their lives figured out back then, but they were more vital before responsibilities, work, and cynicism redefined them. Arguments abound–often instigated by sharp-tongued Ray–punctuated by good old Jack stories. Son Vince would just like to get the whole thing done and dusted, but what’s a road trip without detours? It’s only 76 miles from London to Margate and can be done in under two hours, but not if you take side trips to Canterbury and the Chatham Naval Memorial, and certainly not if all wars of words are defused at pub stops.   


 Let me emphasize again that the storyline is spare. This film only works if you cast skilled actors who can hold audience attention through the sheer force of their craft and personalities. Any one of veterans such as the principals could recite from actuarial tables and you’d be enthralled. Despite the glum task of dumping Jack into the English Channel, Last Order is often very funny. After all, what’s more ripe for lampoon than a carful of guys lacking in filters and self-awareness? Yet because they have a solemn mission, the humor is leavened with ouch! moments in which pathos intervenes.   


Last Orders is ultimately a film that rests on verbosity, wit, and inference. The side trips are not so much tourist travel as diversions that challenge the living to confront the mundanity of their post-Jack selves. It’s a bit like That Championship Season without basketball. I liked it quite a lot, though I had to swallow the biter pill that neither Hoskins nor Hemmings are with us any longer.


Rob Weir


The Latecomer Lands Its Punches



By Jean Hanff Korelitz

Celadon Books, 440 pages.





Jean Hanff Korelitz scores again with The Latecomer. As in her previous novel, The Plot, she throws us into circumstances muddied by murky morality. It unfolds in three acts that take us from 1972-2017. In an unusual twist, Phoebe Oppenheimer,  the book’s namesake latecomer, narrates events from before she was born.


How many life decisions have their genesis in a single action? In Act I, Solomon “Salo” Oppenheimer, a 20-year-old Cornell student, has an auto accident in which two are killed and a third, Stella Western, an African American woman, is seriously injured. How do you put such a horrifying event behind you? If you have a conscience, you don’t; you merely move forward. Salo marries Johanna Hirsch, who wants children, but it’s just not happening. After several years, Johanna opts for in vitro fertilization and one of her frozen eggs bears fruit–in a big way. Suddenly, she is the mother of triplets: Sally, Lewyn, and Harrison. Salo, though, is more cut out to be a recluse. He comes from money, makes even more in financial services, and impulsively buys a Cy Twombly painting for reasons he can’t explain. It becomes his entrée into Outsider art–including Henry Darger and Achilles Rizzoli–which he collects and stores in a warehouse that his family doesn’t know about. They think his relative absence from their big house in Brooklyn Heights is work-related.  


The kids are definitely not all right. The triplets positively despise each other, show little deference to either parent, and lack empathy. The children imagine themselves as the equivalent of Outsider art. Actually, they replicate parental patterns: each preps at the “progressive” school their parents once attended and at which Johanna works, two end up at Cornell, and none connect family money to the unorthodox lives they seek to build.


Part II follows the triplets’ college years. Sally and Lewyn live in adjacent dorms at Cornell, but never even acknowledge knowing one another. That’s awkward when Lewyn begins to date Sally’s roommate Rochelle Steiner, on whom Sally also has a crush. Good luck keeping those secrets! More weirdness abides. Though he is Jewish, Lewyn contemplates becoming a Mormon like his roommate, and Sally puts Cornell in the rearview mirror to become a furniture picker like an older woman with whom she informally interned. Harrison attends an alternative school in New Hampshire, where he becomes a devotee of Eli Absalom Stone, whom he views as a genius and defends in a school contretemps turned tempest. Stone identifies as black, an ambiguous claim. He and Harrison yearn to be conservative intellectuals, attend the Hayek Institute*, and act like Tucker Carlsons-in-training. As Phoebe put it, “Harrison lived on the Upper East Side but traveled constantly in his noxious mission to make the world awful.”


The Oppenheimer marriage collapses when Salo reconnects with Stella, fathers  Ephraim, and announces he’s leaving his wife. This (eventually) sets the stage for Act III. Johanna uses another stored embryo to bring Phoebe into the world 19 years after the triplets. Johanna rationalizes that the family that she thought she wanted was never really a family at all. And how! Phoebe’s voice dominates the third section.


There’s a lot in this novel: 9/11, visions of what a post-racial society might look like, hoarding, blurred lines between invention and fraud, imagining ethnic reassignment, legal battles, fourth-wave feminism, the gap between what is said and inferred, and things that can be forgiven and those that are what they are. Although the novel’s ending ties loose ends too neatly, Korelitz doesn’t offer instant character redemption. That would be inconsistent in a work in which loners struggle to change their ways. The very constancy of fully realized characters helps explain dysfunctionality Oppenheimer-style.


Korelitz deftly interweaves thematic contrasts. The most obvious is the tension between progressive and hard right politics, but you might ponder, for instance, the gulf between the art Salo collected and the Shaker furniture that Sally salvaged. I admired Korelitz’s courage to dive into treacherous cultural war waters. The Latecomer runs the risk of angering the woke and the deliberately non-woke. It’s as if she’s telling us that any of us would be best rendered as an Outsider portrait.


Rob Weir


*Friedrich Hayek (1889-92) was an influential free-market economist. His staunch belief that government should remain neutral in economic matters, should not artificially manipulate “natural” interest rates, or engage in New Deal-like spending has made him a posthumous neo-conservative icon.



Is Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Still Relevant?



Directed by Stanley Kramer

Columbia, 108 minutes, not rated.





Does a “classic film” ever cease to be one? I raise this question because I recently rewatched Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? to see how well it weathers. Answer: Not very well. It’s certainly true that a post-racial society exists only in the naïve rhetoric of the woke, but GWCTD mostly reminds us of how much has changed since 1967.


Its premise is straightforward. Twenty-three-year-old Joanna “Joey” Drayton (Katharine Houghton) cuts her trip to Hawaii short to return home (San Francisco) with a surprise in tow: her thirty-seven-year-old fiancé, Dr. John Wade Prentice (Sidney Poitier). She’s white and he’s a “Negro,” the term of preference in 1967, but Joey “knows” her parents Christina (Katharine Hepburn), a gallery owner, and Matt (Spencer Tracy), a crusading publisher, will love John. After all, they’re both liberal. Of course, it’s not that simple.  Both are surprised and Matt is very much against the idea of nuptials–for social reasons of course. So too is their black housekeeper Tillie Bix (Isabel Sanford), who thinks Prentice doesn’t know his place. As it transpires, John’s parents, John Sr. (Roy E. Glenn Sr.), a retired postal carrier, and his wife Mary (Beah Richards) have reservations as well–for, you know, social reasons. The only person other than Joey who is enthusiastic is family friend Monsignor Mike Ryan (Cecil Kellaway). Even Dr. Prentice promises Matt no wedding will take place without his blessing.


The entire racial comedy/drama takes place in a single day as Dr. Prentice must fly to Geneva that evening, with or without Joanna. In order to keep the focus on race, director Stanley Kramer and screenwriter William Rose transformed Prentice into a veritable black Superman. Prentice is handsome, a widower whose wife and son died years earlier, and a renowned physician about to take a posting with the World Health Organization. Audiences of the day were challenged to confront their own “If only he were white” biases, as Prentice’s character, qualifications, and sense of honor were impeccable.


GWCTD was considered bold in 1967. It came just three years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 theoretically desegregated American society. Alas, there is often lag time between the passage of acts of Congress and widespread implementation. Tillie and John’s father were not playing Uncle Tom roles; they were from the generation in which what was under discussion could not have happened. There are references to 17 states where the Prentice/Drayton marriage would have been illegal. That also remained true, though the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision in June 1967 overturned bans on interracial couples.


Entrenched custom no doubt factored into decisions to interject comedy into the drama. Some of it is embarrassing by current standards, none so much as an impromptu dance between a white delivery boy and a sexy black part-time helper. (Memo to filmmakers: Never show actors performing a dance craze du jour; it will look insipid by the time it wraps.) Even the film’s title comes across as amusing, as if white viewers were expected to laugh uncomfortably about what they’d do in the same situation. It was the right touch for the time, as GWCTD was a box office smash and even did well in the South. That despite Poitier’s big speech on his humanity. (Poitier specialized in impassioned monologs.)


The film garnered 10 Oscar nominations and won two: Hepburn as Best Actress and Rose for Best Screenplay. Hepburn’s win, for a merely competent turn, seems like one that happened because the Academy stiffed her for better past roles. In many ways this was Tracy’s film, but everyone gave strong performances with the exception of Houghton–Hepburn’s niece–whose cluelessness and lack of a strong adult self simply don’t resonate.


In retrospect, the most notable thing to be said is that this was Tracy’s final film. He was so ill at the time that no one would insure him. He, Hepburn, and Kramer put their salaries in escrow in case he had to be replaced. Tracy died 17 days after the film wrapped and Hepburn, whose Parkinson’s disease was visually evident, was so devastated that she never watched the theatrical release. These matters are sad, but they don’t change the fact that watching GWCTD today is like watching a documentary on rotary dial phones. Does it remain a classic? More like a quaint artifact, I fear.


Rob Weir