The latest effort from independent movie distributor and filmmaker Jeff Lipsky (Mad Women, Flannel Pajamas) feels like a gift to actors. The Last features showpieces for several members of its ensemble cast, but the most generous one is provided to Rebecca Schull, best known for her recurring role on the vintage NBC sitcom Wings. The 90-year-old veteran character actress delivers a near-monologue, lasting some 45 minutes, in which her sweet, Jewish great-grandmother character reveals that she’s not Jewish at all, but rather a Nazi. And an unrepentant one at that. To say that thespians live for opportunities such as this is an understatement, and Schull, whose restrained underplaying only makes the material more powerful, makes the most of it. (If you’re wondering why no spoiler alert was provided, it’s because the revelation is showcased in the film’s trailer.)
Unfortunately, like everything else in the movie, the scene goes on far too long. This endlessly talky drama comes to resemble a series of audition pieces, feeling more redolent of the stage than cinema; you can easily imagine it playing in a small off-Broadway theater. The film is certainly a tough commercial sell even with its modest art house aspirations, considering that much of the running time consists of lengthy discussions about such subjects as Judaism vs. Christianity and the differences between Conservative and Orthodox Judaism.
Schull delivers a tour de force.
The main characters are thirtysomethings Josh (AJ Cedeno), an Orthodox Jew who is also, incongruously, an atheist; his fiancée, Olivia (Jill Durso), a Catholic in the process of converting to Judaism; Josh’s parents, Harry (frequent Lipsky collaborator Reed Birney), an agnostic, and Melody (Julie Fain Lawrence), a Conservative Jew who sings in her synagogue’s choir; and Claire (Schull), Josh’s 92-year-old great-grandmother and beloved family matriarch.
In her dramatic confession, delivered during a sunny day on the beach, Claire recounts how she worked as a nurse at Auschwitz and became pregnant by a Nazi doctor who conducted horrific experiments on sterilized women. She relocated to the U.S. by pretending to be a Jewish refugee, but wishes that Germany had won the war. “I still consider myself a member of the party,” she says proudly. A horrified Josh, who realizes that this also means he isn’t actually Jewish, asks, “Are you completely unrepentant?” He tells her that he intends to make sure she’s put on trial for war crimes. But that may not be possible, since Claire also informs them that she’s terminally ill and intends to travel to Oregon for an assisted suicide. “How do you like them apples?” she asks, smiling tightly.
The revelation sends the family reeling, but Harry, at least, decides to make the most of it. A successful graphic novel writer, he immediately begins working on one based on his grandmother’s experiences, and wants to keep her alive long enough to gather more material.
The writer-director has certainly come up with a compellingly dramatic scenario. But the pic never lives up to its potential because of slack pacing, uneven technical elements and overwriting. As if to spread the wealth, there are numerous verbose passages for several of the other characters, including a lengthy graveside monologue by Melody, in which she pours out her anger to her late mother, that feels like a dramatized therapy session.
The movie is certainly worth seeing, if only for Schull’s devastating, canny performance (Birney, as the cheerfully cynical Harry, is very good as well). But for all its attempts at subdued realism, The Last ironically comes across as wholly contrived and artificial.
Production company: Plainview Pictures
Distributor: Glass Half Full Media
Cast: Reed Birney, AJ Cedeno, Jill Durso, Julie Fain Lawrence, Rebecca Schull
Director-screenwriter: Jeff Lipsky
Producer: Michael Gotanich
Executive producer: Nick Athas
Director of photography: Erlendur Sveinsson
Production designer: Linda Burton
Costume designer: Raxann Chin
Editor: Joana de Bastos Rodrigues
Casting: Amy Gossels