In the heartland of Iowa, five grad school liberals share a house, a left wing outlook, and Sunday suppers filled with conversation and social criticism. But when a redneck trucker threatens one of their own, he inadvertently puts them on the radical road to serial murder. From soup to nuts, The Last Supper is “fiendishly funny!” (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone)
The Last Supper 8.0
eyelights: its central conceit. the black humour. the philosophical discussions. the moral quandary being served up. the secondary cast.
eyesores: the discussions are too superficial. it gradually loses steam, limping to a close.
“It’s 1909 and you’re alone with a young artist named Adolph. Do you kill him?”
Have you ever wondered what you would do? I have. Would I make the world a better place in killing Hitler in his youth, or would I alter the course of history in such a way that it would get worse, somehow? And would murder be justifiable, anyway? Would it be right, morally? Or would I have to find another way to prevent him from becoming the man he eventually became?
To me, those are interesting questions that will never have an answer, but that certainly leave me pondering. I’m not alone, either: it generally makes for great discussion fodder, something to talk about with friends on a late night, along with the state of affairs in the world today, the current political discourse, and our growing frustrations at not seeing humanity growing wiser.
And this is where ‘The Last Supper’ steps in.
It takes five intellectual roommates, the types who are prone to discussing socio-political affairs, and puts them face-to-face with someone that they consider so vile that their confrontation with him pushes them over the edge, leading to murder. From that point, after justifying their action as having made “the world a better place”, they decide to invite a few other such characters over for dinner.
The purpose: to challenge these peoples’ beliefs and see if they can be lead to reason. And, if not, well… the poisoned wine gets served.
It’s a simple-minded premise one might say, but it’s a terrific vehicle for all the anger and disgruntlement one might feel with respect to extremely socially-conservative people – those who spew hatred loaded with irrational arguments -if not outright lies- in the pursuit of their agenda. What ‘The Last Supper’ is is liberal wish-fulfilment in the guise of light satire.
But with its anti-right wing sociopolitical discourse come words of warning: it is easy to cross the line, to become the very monster one loathes. I think that using this approach is the correct thing to do, because it doesn’t excuse the characters’ behaviour – it makes them responsible for their actions and it shows that a line needs to be drawn.
And what the consequences of crossing it might be.
If only the filmmakers had managed to sustain the intellectual exchanges and the pitch-black humour after the group’s first dinner, it could have made for a standout film. Unfortunately, ‘The Last Supper’s bite softens soon thereafter, running through a few more dinners in haste and then delving into the tepid tensions at the heart of the group – something that was best delivered in ‘Shallow Grave’.
Part of the issue is that the principal cast is less interesting than the secondary ones, the dinner guests themselves, so we don’t care of them nearly as much:
- Cameron Diaz plays Jude with the right amount of confidence. She makes her character the second most interesting of the lot – which is not bad considering it was her second film role ever (after ‘The Mask’). I especially liked seeing her au naturel, still baby-faced – unlike the Margot Kidder-like woman with the Joker’s grin that we know today.
- Ron Eldard plays Pete – who ostensibly must be the gay guy of the group, even though it’s not explicitly stated as such. Unfortunately, Eldard exudes the correct flavour for the part, but lacks the nuance required to truly make him feel real.
- Annabeth Gish plays Paulie, the seemingly weak one. Unsurprisingly, she’s the moral centre of the group, but doesn’t have the will to keep the group from straying. Frankly, it’s a forgettable role and performance.
- Jonathan Penner plays Marc, Paulie’s boyfriend. He’s a typical educated guy, the kind you see on campuses everywhere. The character is also somewhat forgettable, although the performance is solid enough.
- Courtney B. Vance play Luke, the angry guy. He’s the fire of group and, unleashed, quickly gets out of control. He’s also the most passionate debater of the lot. His vacillating emotions were not always convincing, but it had more to do with the contexts than the performance.
The lot of them are certainly more interesting as a whole than individually, but it’s still a fairly flavourless group of people. The supporting players totally make up for it – they’re the real gold here:
- Bill Paxton plays a neo-nazi who gets invited in for dinner when he gives Pete a lift. Little did they know that he wouldn’t tolerate their “bleeding heart liberal” dialogues and that conflict would arise from it. Paxton, in a rare moment of reserve, avoids chewing the scenery and delivers an surprisingly strong performance. He sets the tone for the picture. It couldn’t have asked for more.
- Charles Durning plays an anti-gay reverend who believes that AIDS is a homosexual disease that God has sent into the world to cleanse it. We’ve all heard this kind of talk many times before so this guy feels very real, but Durning plays it straight and spews his filth as though he believed every word. He made the character both friendly and revolting at once.
- Mark Harmon plays a nice guy with a twisted take on women, going on a spiel about date rape that will make most viewing audiences stir uncomfortably. It doesn’t get too dark, but it harks back about 50 years and proves the man’s wilful ignorance about male-female relations. Since Harmon is so bloody congenial, his words seems utterly discrepant. And disturbing.
- Jason Alexander’s character doesn’t believe in the environmental movement, thinking that it’s all a farce. In his mind, due to natural selection, human beings have come out on top and, thus, are entitled to do whatever they want; all other species are weaker and can go to hell. While the performance is slightly over-the-top, Alexander gives him enough sharpness to stand out.
- Ron Perlman play a right-wing talk-show host – a loud-mouth, careless, arrogant, self-important Neanderthal of a man who turns out to be quite a surprise to the group of friends. Perlman, a skilled actor if ever there was one, adds finesse to the part, transforming this venom-spewing grotesquery into a charismatic, articulate, clever chameleon. He’s the only one that manages to shake this group up.
There are others, but either the performances weren’t memorable enough or the parts were too sketchy/too brief to make an impression.
In the non-dinner guests category, Nora Dunn plays a Sheriff who is closing in on our group of friends. While she is mostly known for her comedic performances, she brings a quiet dignity and assuredness to her part, suggesting competence. I thought that she was quite good, and it was one of my favourite characters.
The film rests entirely on the performances, having very little to go on beyond a series of dinners with the roommates and a few strangers. However, buoyed by some interesting conversations, the cast brings it to the table and turns what could have been a tasteless affair into a bittersweet treat.
‘The Last Supper’ is an engaging and entertaining movie, given the right expectations. First-time viewers may be disappointed by the limited scope of the characters’ exchanges, but second viewings are guaranteed to satisfy those who enjoy its satirical bent and/or the yummy intellectual tidbits.
While my rating may seem unusually high, masking its deficiencies, the fact is that I find that the picture fulfilled its potential admirably enough. And, quite frankly, I adore its central conceit; it amuses me to no end. It’s certainly not the last time that I will savour ‘The Last Supper’.
Date of viewing: March 21, 2013