A compact drama in the key of Neil LaBute about the grinding effects of corporate culture and the poisonous relations between the sexes steadily unravels in "The Last Time." Third act "gotcha" twist betrays a lack of intrinsic faith from writer-director Michael Caleo in his raw material, though it's perfectly sound, if not terribly inspired. Although this "Sopranos" writing vet delivers several flashes of that show's dark humor and irony, the pic leaves a hollow feeling at the end that augurs better returns in cable and vid than at the B.O. for distrib Destination Films.

A compact drama in the key of Neil LaBute about the grinding effects of corporate culture and the poisonous relations between the sexes steadily unravels in “The Last Time.” Third act “gotcha” twist betrays a lack of intrinsic faith from writer-director Michael Caleo in his raw material, though it’s perfectly sound, if not terribly inspired. Although this “Sopranos” writing vet delivers several flashes of that show’s dark humor and irony, the pic leaves a hollow feeling at the end that augurs better returns in cable and vid than at the B.O. for distrib Destination Films.

An inhuman firm located in a corporate park, the Bindview Co. sells stuff that, cleverly, is never explained. The point is that the company produces it, and the guys in their cubicles inside the black glass office building do their damnedest to sell it. Profane and wildly misanthropic Ted (Michael Keaton, perfectly cast), recently an English lit professor at Northwestern U., is the best at this game. Walking into Ted’s world is unwelcome cub salesman Jamie (Brendan Fraser), engaged to pretty Belisa (Amber Valletta).

Cheery Jamie is fresh from Ohio, and in a reverse of the story pattern in “The Ex,” he’s trying to acclimate to Gotham. Ted deems Jamie an idiot, and a no-talent at sales. It doesn’t take long for a bored Belisa — already sensing Jamie may be a loser and on her third engagement with him –to seduce Ted, right beside her sleeping fiance.

Ted gradually assumes the image of a man ready for a fall, and it’s much less in the increasingly unmanageable plot and more in the details of character and throwaway office scenes that “The Last Time” becomes interesting in the worthy subgenre of such corporate movies as “Office Space” and LaBute’s “In the Company of Men.”

There’s more dramatic pull in the film’s observations of impending doom in the workplace because of souring sales (measured in the stressed and aging face of division boss Daniel Stern), than there is in how Ted may or may not extract himself from his impossible affair with the siren Belisa. Although the pic and script hold to the solid concept that the personal tale and the larger company saga should run on parallel tracks until the inevitable crack-up, some third-act trickery, which is not terribly difficult to foresee, can’t cover for the imbalance.

Keaton’s portrait of a bitter intellectual eating his lessers for lunch until he’s one-upped is very much in LaBute’s zone of ruthless American jerks, but his characterization is finally more human. While Valletta barely registers a credible emotion, Fraser is a roller-coaster of emotional swings crucial to the pic’s sense of deception and cynicism. For some, though, the perf may be trying too hard, telegraphing his character’s hidden agenda.

While Caleo sharply films his Westchester, N.Y., burbs with deadening flatness (with a fine assist from cinematographer Tim Suhrstedt), the widescreen aspect ratio is wasted, since shots are framed for standard TV. Randy Edelman’s forgettable score is thoughtlessly laid on the soundtrack.

The Last Time

Production

A Destination Films release of an Element Films presentation of an Element Films production in association with Lift Prods. and L.A. Squared. Produced by Stavros Merjos, Peter Samuelson, J. Malcolm Petal, Adam Rosenfelt. Executive producers, Marc Schaberg, Michael Keaton, Brendan Fraser, Sam Nazarian. Co-producers, Julie Dangel, Jeff Balis, Kimberley C. Anderson. Directed, written by Michael Caleo.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Tim Suhrstedt; editor, David Finfer, Thom Noble; music, Randy Edelman; music supervisor, Yolanda Ferraloro; production designer, Garreth Stover; art director, Frank Zito; set decorator, Lisa Alkofer; costume designers, Shawn-Holly Cookson, Peter Meiselmann; sound (Dolby Digital), Stacy Brownrigg CQ; supervising sound editor, David Miraglia; sound re-recording mixers, Kelly Vandever, Mark Rozett; assistant director, Brian Pitt; casting, Anne McCarthy, Jay Scully. Reviewed at Sony Studios screening room, Culver City, May 10, 2006. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Ted Riker - Michael Keaton Jamie Bashant -  Brendan Fraser Belisa - Amber Valletta John Whitman - Daniel Stern Hurly - Neal McDonough Breckenridge - Michael C. Hagerty Leguzza - Michael Lerner Arthur Crosby - Richard Kuhlman Alvarez - Alexis Cruz Roger - William Ragsdale
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