With characters and situations threatening to bust the edges of the screen, and a goofy mix of Hollywood, mobsters and the FBI, "The Last Shot" has both too much and too little.Lacking careful marketing despite a cast of both well-liked and hot thesps, caper will steal away from theaters into video, where it will enjoy a better fate.

Where is Elmore Leonard when you need him? With characters and situations threatening to bust the edges of the screen, and a goofy mix of Hollywood, mobsters and the FBI, “The Last Shot” has both too much and too little. An exaggerated version of the true story of how Feds duped hungry filmmakers into making a movie as a front for a sting operation, pic contains most of the elements of a “Get Shorty”-type romp without the character depth and wit. Lacking careful marketing despite a cast of both well-liked and hot thesps, caper will steal away from theaters into video, where it will enjoy a better fate.

That “The Last Shot” is the work of a writer-director who’s penned such smart escapades as “Catch Me if You Can,” sets up expectations of a funny and intelligent adventure, especially with a list of co-stars that includes Matthew Broderick, Alec Baldwin, Toni Collette, Tony Shalhoub, Calista Flockhart, Tim Blake Nelson and Ray Liotta, with the bonus of a rare appearance by Buck Henry. But tyro helmer Jeff Nathanson may well have bitten off more than he can handle; the number of moving parts, storylines and people being shuffled about does the movie in, and, as a Hollywood comedy darkly lampooning Hollywood, pic seems culturally long in the tooth.

The story setting of 1985-86, when John Gotti dominated much of the East Coast Mafia and most struggling indie filmmakers couldn’t hope for a break, lends the comedy a retro feel that isn’t as joyously exploited as it should be. A gangland hit by Gotti on rivals alerts the FBI of the need to finally bring the kingpin down, and agent Joe Devine (Baldwin) — first seen risking body parts during a Houston undercover op — is sent by his boss and brother Jack (Ray Liotta) to Providence, R.I., as part of the investigation.

Meanwhile, Gotti cousin Tommy Sanz (Shalhoub), on whom Joe’s team is spying, feels ostracized from the family (blaming it on his pockmarked skin) and plans a job that will earn new respect. Scheme, involving kickbacks to Teamster truckers working on feature film shoots, inspires Joe to set up a faux production as a sting to nab Tommy and perhaps others in the Gotti clan.

Cut to Los Angeles, where unemployed director Steven Schats (Broderick) shacks up with unemployed actor Valerie (Flockhart) in an apartment next to a dog kennel. (Pooches play an inordinate role in pic, to mostly tasteless ends.) He’s trying to solicit interest in a script, titled “Arizona,” about a dying woman in the desert. After a wall of apathy, he finds an eager suitor in Joe, now in full producer guise.

But a promising meeting at Musso & Frank’s between Joe, Steven and Steven’s doddering agent (Henry) plays so flat onscreen that it points up the pic’s chronic problem of failing to draw comedy from potentially hilarious set-ups.

Pic leans on a parade of increasingly repetitive gags (Joe’s huddles with Feds that turn into script meetings) and showbiz antics (the uncredited Joan Cusack’s toxically repellant agent; wisecracks about Disney; everybody, including Tommy, chiming in on how to improve the script).

As the range of the pic’s concerns grows to include casting of sexy star Emily French (Collette, glamming it up) and Steven’s difficulties in making Rhode Island double for Arizona, the basic themes of lies, false fronts and pipe dreams are lost in a sweaty effort to make everything run on course.

Nathanson’s work resembles more that of traffic cop than director, which is why perfs — though never poor — are below expectations. Broderick as an unsuspecting innocent and Baldwin as a poseur are ideally cast, but lack the lines or situations to knock out comedic home runs. Because the many other thesps have little time to make their stamp, only a few — Collette above all — resonate.

Production package is pro, despite lapses in the depiction of mid-’80s Los Angeles. Most intriguing detail to ponder is production designer William Arnold’s efforts to create the illusion in Southern California of a crew based in Rhode Island trying to re-create Arizona.

The Last Shot

Production

A Buena Vista Pictures release of a Touchstone Pictures presentation of a Morra Brezner Steinberg and Tenenbaum production in association with a Mandeville Films production. Produced by Larry Brezner, David Hoberman. Executive producers, Stan Wlodkowski, Todd Lieberman. Co-producer, Ellen Erwin. Directed, written by Jeff Nathanson, based on an article by Steve Fishman.

Crew

Camera (color), John Lindley; editor, David Rosenbloom; music, Rolfe Kent; music supervisor, Nora Felder; production designer, William Arnold; art director, Seth Reed; set designers, Lynn Christopher, Theodore Sharps; set decorator, Natali Kendrick Pope; costume designer, Gloria Gresham; makeup, Suzanne Rodier; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Richard Van Dyke; supervising sound editor, Tom Bellfort; visual effects supervisor, Bill Kent; special effects coordinator, Danny Owen; visual effects, Pacific Title and Art Studio; stunt coordinator, Ben Scott; choreographer, Janet Roston; associate producers, Gary Levy, Dan Lewk; assistant director, Noga Isackson; second unit camera, Emma Rotundi; casting, Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood. Reviewed at the Avco Cinema, Los Angeles, Sept. 22, 2004. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Steven Schats - Matthew Broderick Joe Devine - Alec Baldwin Emily French - Toni Collette Tommy Sanz - Tony Shalhoub Valerie Weston - Calista Flockhart Marshal Paris - Tim Blake Nelson Jack Devine - Ray Liotta Abe White - James Rebhorn Lonnie Bosco - Buck Henry
With: Russell Means, Pat Morita.

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