Rating: (Half a star)
“The Last” is a perplexing conundrum of a film: a potentially profound concept buried beneath layers of amateurishness.
At the start of the film by writer-director Jeff Lipsky, a former distributor of indie films who has turned to filmmaking, we meet Olivia and Josh (Jill Durso and AJ Cedeno), a couple gearing up for marriage. Olivia, previously Catholic, is a Jewish convert with zeal for her new faith; Josh is a Jewish agnostic with a critical view of Conservative Judaism. At the top of Josh’s multigenerational family, smiling sweetly, is 92-year-old matriarch Claire (Rebecca Schull).
When Claire, known to her relatives as Nana, pays a surprise visit to the newlyweds, who have escaped to a beach, small talk soon gives way to what’s really on Nana’s mind. She’s come with a diary and some yellowed photographs, relics of her and her mother’s pasts. One of those snapshots is a scene at Auschwitz, in the center of which a young woman stands — in a nurse’s uniform. Claire, who reveals she has brain cancer, has decided that before seeking physician-assisted suicide, she is going to let some radioactive skeletons tumble out of her closet, at her family’s feet.
But that riveting setup is largely squandered. The film is visually drab, with, a home-video aesthetic of flat lighting, shaky camerawork and uninteresting shots that work on the viewer like a sedative. An absence of a musical score for most of the film saps the energy and drama from much of the dialogue. Moments meant to be solemn lack intensity and often come across as unintentionally funny. Dubbing glitches and poor sound design grow ever more distracting, providing endless fodder for nit-pickers.
This is more than a case of technical ineptitude getting in the way of a great story. “The Last” is, unfortunately, dialogue heavy, which is a serious weakness considering that conversations are either clunkily delivered, full of overstuffed exposition, or possess a Socratic edge that turns them into heavy-handed debates about the film’s themes: inherited guilt, justice and individual well-being amid societal suffering. Several performers struggle to remain convincing when their characters are forced to utter such inane lines as, “Three years I’ve been teaching special needs kids. I guess today, I was a special need kid.”
“The Last” fails in ways too many and too spectacular to be simply forgettable. If there’s a saving grace — a silver lining to this cloud of unsuccessful elements — it’s that it’s undeniably ambitious.
Rotating through its ensemble cast, the film tries to examine how grief burdens a family, with mixed results. Lipsky has set his eye on challenging questions here, and the way he positions his bickering characters to play off one another at least nods in the direction of thematic nuance. But at every turn, he is undermined by his own incompetence. A scene in which Claire recounts her and her mother’s histories to Olivia and Josh clocks in at 22 minutes, with barely an interruption. In defter hands, a scene of such punishing length might have been an artful and potentially mesmerizing risk. Here, it’s excruciating.
Maybe “The Last” would have worked better in another medium. Everything about it — from the way the actors project, as if trying to make themselves heard in the nosebleed seats, to the circuitous writing — screams live theater. As for any nuggets of interest that might be there, the film’s off-putting clumsiness makes digging for them a chore.
Unrated. At the ArcLight Bethesda. Contains: brief strong language and mature thematic material. 123 minutes. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the theater will host Q&As with the director and/or cast members following the 10 a.m., 12:45 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. screenings.