Showtime forgoes flash in favor of subtlety with “Last Call,” an engaging, sleepy project that gathers steam with each passing scene. Based on the Frances Kroll memoir “Against the Current: As I Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald,” pic is a flawed but revealing snapshot of the novelist in the twilight of his life. Jeremy Irons as Fitzgerald and Neve Campbell as his trusted secretary Kroll create an intriguing dynamic of protege and pupil, while the movie explores how Fitzgerald’s final book, “The Last Tycoon,” made it to publication after his death.
By 1939, nearly all of Fitzgerald’s fame and a good deal of his money had run dry. His books were out of print and his notoriety all but forgotten. With his flamboyant wife, Zelda, institutionalized and his daughter enrolled at Vassar, he still had to pay the bills.
He hires the soft-spoken and hard-working Frances as his secretary for $35 a week. An aspiring novelist unfamiliar with his work, she is at first taken aback by Fitzgerald’s drunken antics and unorthodox working routine. Much to Frances’ surprise, Fitzgerald conducts the job interview from his bed and, on her first day, she witnesses a volatile fight between him and his gossip columnist girlfriend, Sheilah Graham (Natalie Radford).
Fitzgerald needs someone to take dictation and type pages for a new book based loosely on MGM honcho Irving G. Thalberg, but Frances finds herself more often running interference for Graham, disposing of numerous gin bottles and making fudge.
Over their nearly two-year relationship, Frances develops a protective attachment to her boss. In exchange for her loyalty, Fitzgerald helps her with her writing by giving brutally honest criticism. He doesn’t exactly pass Frances the literary torch, but she does become keeper of the flame. After his death of a heart attack in 1940, Frances champions the writer by pushing to have the incomplete novel published.
As Fitzgerald, Irons at first doesn’t appear to capture the essence of the larger-than-life novelist, but the actor eventually conveys the tormented genius persona without giving a Jekyll-and-Hyde performance.
Campbell’s turn as Frances is a departure, and she covers the new territory with grace and maturity. “Last Call” makes a point to show that Frances, although a trusted friend, never breaks into Fitzgerald’s inner circle; in one particularly poignant scene, she waits patiently for her turn to dance with Fitzgerald, but he never asks.
Director-writer Henry Bromell, a Fitzgerald aficionado, has created a loving but somewhat glossy tribute to his literary hero. His script reveals a truly touching interpersonal relationship, but it’s heavily veiled with sentimental affection. His only major misstep is including Zelda as an apparition. While Sissy Spacek is an inspired choice, it’s one that fizzles in execution; it’s as if Fitzgerald’s genius is fueled only by his demons.
Jeffrey Jur’s lensing is solid, but the dark Toronto location betrays what is supposed to be the sun-soaked decadence of early Hollywood. Rosalie Board’s immaculate set decoration reflects the cultured style of the time, while Resa McConaghy’s costumes offer a nostalgic look at some of the era’s more attractive designs.