Armin Mueller-Stahl delivers a towering performance in Bob Balaban's "The Last Good Time," an unusually poignant, finely observed comedy-drama about an old man whose life changes dramatically as a result of a fateful encounter with a young woman.

Armin Mueller-Stahl delivers a towering performance in Bob Balaban’s “The Last Good Time,” an unusually poignant, finely observed comedy-drama about an old man whose life changes dramatically as a result of a fateful encounter with a young woman. Goldwyn faces a tough challenge in marketing an intimate, often slow film that not only lacks conventional action or drama, but also features three of four characters who are senior citizens.

Mueller-Stahl plays Joseph Kopple, an elegant 70-year-old widower who still clings to the memories of his beautiful wife, whose untimely death also signaled mental dissolution for him.

A retired musician, he’s being hounded by the IRS for failure to pay taxes on his pension. The only grace in his lonely, fastidious life, mostly spent in his walk-up Brooklyn apartment, is nightly violin-playing.

One evening, Joseph witnesses a nasty fight between a young couple upstairs, which ends with Charlotte (Olivia D’Abo) being kicked out of the apartment by b.f. Eddie (Adrian Pasdar).

With all of her belongings thrown out the window, Joseph picks up her lipstick and key, two symbolic items that will later prove crucial. The freezing Charlotte has no place to go, so Joseph takes her in and gradually they develop a strange friendship.

On the surface, pic centers on the bittersweet relationship between two very different individuals. Indeed, the script, co-written by Balaban and McLaughlin, stresses the huge gaps in the characters’ age, education and lifestyle.

But after the first reel, it becomes clear the film’s goal is to challenge our preconceived notions and stereotypes about aging.

Director Balaban succeeds in steering away from sentimental melodrama and from imposing obvious turning points on the central relationship, which grows naturally.

Leaving aside the crude sitcom humor of a commercial hit like “Grumpy Old Men ,” the filmmakers refuse to judge or pander to any of their characters.

Pic is excellent in chronicling the importance that Joseph attaches to order and routine, particularly his daily visits to a nursing home, where Howard Singer (Lionel Stander), his 89-year-old friend, resides.

Most of the humor is based on the interaction between Joseph and Howard, a dying man who hasn’t lost his sharp tongue or his mental vigor.

The scene where the two men smoke cigars, get drunk and reminisce about sex is as funny as it is touching.

As the film’s emotional center, Mueller-Stahl renders a splendid, lyrical performance — he’s a rare actor who, by projecting inner verve, always serves notice. That D’Abo is less impressive may be a result of her less developed role , as story is told from Joseph’s p.o.v.

What Charlotte brings to Joseph’s dreary existence is well-established, but it’s not always clear how she feels toward him.

A stellar supporting cast includes the irascible Stander and the magnificent Maureen Stapleton, as a chatty neighbor whose friendly gestures are at first rejected by Joseph.

Lenser Claudia Raschke and editor Hughes Winborne imbue the film with an arresting visual style, using uninterrupted long takes and radiant panning to convey the changing physical and emotional space between Joseph and Charlotte.

The filmmakers struggle a bit too hard to end the story on an uplifting note, which undermines the more ambiguous tone, but this doesn’t mar the emotional impact of a quiet, resonant film that is as sparing in words as it is abundant in meanings.

The Last Good Time

Production

A Samuel Goldwyn release of an Apogee Films production. Produced by Dean Silvers and Bob Balaban. Executive producer, Klaus Volkenborn. Directed by Balaban. Screenplay, Balaban, John McLaughlin, based on Richard Bausch's novel.

Crew

Camera (color), Claudia Raschke; editor, Hughes Winborne; music, Jonathan Tunick; production design, Wing Lee; art direction, Michael Shaw; set decoration , Betsy Alton; costume design, Kimberly A. Tillman; sound, Antonio L. Arroyo; associate producers, Ricardo Freixa, Todd Scott Brody; casting, Billy Hopkins, Susanne Smith, Kerry Barden. Reviewed at the Hamptons Film Festival, Oct. 19, 1994. Running time: 90 min.

With

Joseph Kopple - Armin Mueller-Stahl
Ida Cutler - Maureen Stapleton
Howard Singer - Lionel Stander
Charlotte Zwicki - Olivia D'Abo
Eddie - Adrian Pasdar
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