FBI director Jack Devine always sets up his brother Joe as undercover to trick mobsters. His latest cover is as movie producer Joe Diamond, to get Tommy Sanz for Teamster racketeering. His cover requires a script - the one movie theater manager Steven Schats and his brother Marshall 'Paris' wrote, supposedly a cancer biopic. So Steven is hired as director, his greatest dream, even if producing an Arizona desert drama on Rhode Island is far from ideal. When a former Oscar nominee volunteers to star, the cover gets out of hand till everyone believes in it, even the FBI brass- or not? Written by
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The Last Shot is a quirky, enjoyable art-house comedy based on the true story of an FBI agent, Garland Schweickhardt, who was in charge of an elaborate operation named "Dramex" to nab mob influences in the film business.
The Schweickhardt character in the film is named Joe Devine (Alec Baldwin). After a brief character establishing scene and an amazing title/opening credits sequence (featuring movie theater objects) that's one of the most creative and cute ones I've seen yet, Devine is transferred to the Providence, Rhode Island FBI office and learns of Tommy Sanz' (Tony Shalhoub) illegal mob dealings with the local teamsters. He figures that the best way to bust Sanz is to set up a fake film shoot and try to get him to make a deal to avoid having to use (and more importantly pay for) union truckers. So Devine, who knows next to nothing about the film business, poses as a producer and heads to Hollywood.
He gets a crash course in the industry from insider Fanny Nash (Joan Cusack in a hilarious extended cameo), and he begins his search for a script and director. Enter struggling screenwriter Steven Schats (Matthew Broderick), who has a day job as a ticket taker at Mann's Chinese Theater and who lives next to a noisy (of course) dog kennel, a fact that profoundly annoys his struggling actress girlfriend, Valerie Weston (Calista Flockhart). Schats has been shopping his script, "Arizona", for a number of years to no avail. Devine sets up a meeting with him and immediately offers him a deal, including casting power, final cut and points. Of course Schats jumps on the deal.
There's only one problem. The script calls primarily for location shots in the desert, including Hopi Indian cave scenes. It's integral to the story. But Devine insists that they shoot in Rhode Island. The bulk of The Last Shot hinges on a few different conflicts, including the FBI's reservations about Devine's plan, which keeps snowballing and turning into a more far reaching lie.
Although it's not every day that the FBI sets up a bogus film production, director and writer Jeff Nathanson uses his debut film as a helmer to comment on various levels of the typical craziness of the movie business. Devine's FBI superiors function as executive producers who are regularly perplexed about where their money is going, but who are easily enough talked into furthering their support as Devine pitches additional time and resources they need to acquire. On a more literal level, Nathanson is also able to spoof agents, directors, actors, and many processes, such as location scouting and casting. Much of this material is hilarious, and viewers do not need to have any intimacy with the film industry to "get it", or to get that there is probably a lot more truth to these scenes than is usually admitted.
The cast is excellent, including Baldwin and Broderick. They may not be the first two names many cineastes would think of when they imagine an art-house film propelled by humorous but poignant performances, but The Last Shot just shows why such conventional wisdom views are off the track. A lot of sizable stars take roles with far less screen time than normal--including Shalhoub, Flockhart and Ray Liotta, but this is a well-written script that turned out to be well directed, so it was a good move for them.
At the same time that Nathanson enables a somewhat sarcastic, cynical view of the film-making process, there is a parallel plot featuring Devine that emphasizes a much more romantic view of the lure of the business. It becomes increasingly clear as The Last Shot unfolds that Devine is no longer concerned with just or even primarily nabbing mobsters. He's trying to plunge deeper into making his "fake" feature because he's falling in love with the idea of film-making. There's a particular line of dialogue delivered by one of Devine's superiors in the FBI, having to do with continuing Devine's project, that is not only a hilarious line in context, it's virtually the climax of the film. Devine has triumphed. The sham has become not what he tells Schats, but what he tells his supervisors. The subsequent conclusion of the film is thus heartwarming and a bit melancholy/tragic at the same time. It's a nice change of pace from more stereotypically "Hollywood" endings.
This is a very good, near-excellent film that has not received the attention it deserves. Although there is an art-house atmosphere to it, it's really more of a mainstream film that should have opened wide in multiplexes with a big publicity campaign. I never even noticed the film on its theatrical release, and I live in New York City and usually pay attention to what's playing the art-house theaters. I only noticed the DVD through my weekly scouring of release schedules to make sure I don't miss anything. Give it a chance and make sure you tell a friend or two about it.
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