Last OrdersReviewed By Collin Souter
Posted 03/08/02 16:48:03
I recently attended a funeral where everyone received a token of the deceased person’s legacy. This man who died would make a paper ring out of a dollar bill for every waitress he ever encountered. I once saw him do it. He had his own way of making them and he never failed to charm the pants off the waitress. This man’s family decided to make a bunch of paper rings out of phony dollar bills and hand them out to those who attended the funeral. The rings had his picture on them. He didn’t request this, or anything. But we’re all pretty sure he would have loved the gesture.I thought about this when I watched Fred Schepisi’s film version of Graham Swift’s book, “Last Orders,” which tells the story about a group of guys trying to grant a final wish from their now-deceased friend. It occurred to me the way in which the death of a loved one suddenly brings out the generosity in us, and for what? If the person has died, why do we abide by certain rituals in order to please them? What does it matter if we really do drive out to a certain spot in the country to scatter some ashes? Why not just go out for a few beers and talk about him instead? How would the dead person know if we did or didn’t? These are the first of many questions brought about in “Last Orders,” the first truly great film of 2002.
This kind of film usually only comes around once a year, and I’m wondering if I’m jumping the gun here by proclaiming “Last Orders” as this year’s “Innocence” or “Secrets and Lies.” A small film about big issues, a great humanist drama with humor that doesn’t over-reach, and an ensemble film where everybody shines, “Last Orders” also has a distinction which sets it apart from the aforementioned titles: It doesn’t tell its story in a way that would make sense. Instead, “Last Orders” takes a non-linear approach similar to Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” or Steven Soderbergh’s “The Limey.” The deceased in question, a lovable and flawed man named Jack Dodds (Michael Caine), left a long and indelible mark on those who knew him. Each character has their own movie in their heads.
For instance, we have Ray (Bob Hoskins), whom Jack met during WWII. On Jack’s deathbed, he gives Ray, a gambler, $1000 to gamble with on a horse. But where did Jack, who has never been without financial problems, get the money? I won’t tell, but you will find the way in which this part of the story unfolds to be a real treat. We also have Lenny (David Hemmings) a boxer who now works as a greengrocer; Vic (Tom Courtenay) who works as an undertaker; and Vince Dodds (Ray Winstone, the younger of the bunch), Jack’s son, a used-car dealer who ends up driving the rented Mercedes to the place where Jack wants his ashes scattered.
At the beginning, they all meet in a bar and stare at the plain-looking brown urn as though one of them bought it from some bizarre antique shop. Meanwhile, in a reoccurring flashback, Ray has a long talk with Jack’s widow, Amy (Helen Mirren). From the way she confides in Ray, we start to get a sense that perhaps something platonic existed between these two characters long ago. They talk about Jack’s major flaw as a father. Jack inherited his father’s butcher shop called “Dodds and Sons,” and it was always his wish for his son, Vince, to take over the shop later in life. Vince, of course, would have nothing of it. Jack and Amy also have a mentally retarded daughter whom they placed in a home. Amy still visits, but never hears so much as ‘hello’ from her.
The movie takes us from the guys’ road trip with Jack’s ashes to a flashback of the conversation between Ray and Amy to a flashback of when all these characters were younger to Jack’s final days, all in no particular order. Part road movie, part domestic drama, part romance, “Last Orders” manages to succeed at everything it wants to be. The camaraderie between the four men in the car feels so natural and laced with secrets and Schepisi makes these scenes all the more remarkable with his fluid camera movements inside the car, as though Jack’s ghost has been eavesdropping in on them the whole time. Most of the humor comes from these characters and the journey they embark upon.
And just how great is it to see Michael Caine in a superb movie again? As Jack, Caine reminds us why has always been one of the best actors on the planet. Caine makes us wish we knew Jack in real life, but also sympathetic to those who did know him and had to deal with his flaws. Bob Hoskins also gives the best performance he has given in a while as Ray. As a gambler and a drinking buddy, Hoskins downplays the addictions and the self-pity (his wife left him and his daughter went off to Australia for college). Helen Mirren has a tough scene towards the end, which I won’t give away, but it’s the one scene that stayed with me the longest, a true heartbreaker, which only an actor of Mirren’s stature could pull off. As one could with “The Royal Tenenbaums,” one could go on and on about the perfect cast and their pitch-perfect performances.
I walked out of “Last Orders” amazed, not just by the film, but at how quickly we got a 4-star movie this year. Often at this time of year critics will say, ‘Destined to be on my 10-best list,’ or ‘If this movie doesn’t appear on my 10-best list, I can’t wait to see what’s in store for us…’ And then it turns out to be a crappy year. I won’t jump the gun just yet. I’ll simply let it be known that we got off to a much better start this year than we did last year (“The Count of Monte Cristo” is great fun, as well).
I also walked out of “Last Orders” feeling unbelievably good, as though I just spent an hour and 45 minutes with friends whom I cared about deeply. One leaves the theater wondering what ever happened to Ray and Amy and Vince and everyone else, as though the movie leaves one wanting more, but in a really, really good way. It may be because we spend so much time wondering about these characters and learning about them, that we get used to that feeling. That doesn’t happen much, does it? Most movies we forget about before we even reach the exits.I think “Last Orders” will stick with people because it forces us to ask ourselves those troubling questions, some of which we might never know the answer. When you die, what will your loved-ones say about you? What secrets of yours will come up? When you die, what do you want done to your body? My girlfriend has always said she would like her body to be taken to Ireland and kicked off a cliff. I, myself, have not decided. I’ll be dead anyway, so I guess it shouldn’t really matter to me. Or should it?
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