It takes some nerve casting a scandal-embattled star like Mel Gibson as a colorful TV celebrity suspected of killing his wife. Those who’ve stood by Gibson despite multiple attempts by the actor to sabotage his own career will likely admire the chutzpah of “Last Looks,” even if his flamboyantly named (and mustachioed) Alastair Pinch — a borderline-blotto, Colonel Sanders-looking Southern judge on a show called “Johnnie’s Bench” — is just a side character (the main suspect) in an overcrowded Hollywood detective story that’s got gimmicks to burn.
The ringmaster of this three-ring circus is one Charlie Waldo (Charlie Hunnam, looking like he hasn’t shaved since “Sons of Anarchy”), a disgraced former LAPD golden boy with even wilder facial hair than Pinch. It’s like a pandemic beard, minus the pandemic.
A few years earlier, Waldo went off the grid after realizing he couldn’t undo the wrongful conviction that launched his career. Where’s Waldo now? Living in self-imposed exile — or “extraction,” per the clunky opening voiceover — in Idyllwild, having reduced all that he owns to just 100 possessions. Like so much of “Last Looks,” this detail is amusing, if distracting, but then, moviegoers have absorbed more than their share of SoCal PI stories over the years, from “The Long Goodbye” to “Inherent Vice,” and more often than not, the very thing we ultimately remember about this genre is whatever concocted eccentricity they managed to serve up along the way.
Which probably explains the weird sunglasses, fruity suits and idiosyncratic personalities of nearly everyone involved. It all comes with the territory, and director Tim Kirkby successfully walks the line between sustaining a flip, irreverent tone and laying it all on a bit thick. Season 1 of “Brockmire” was his baby, as was the “Fleabag” pilot, both of which should give a sense of how Kirkby can go big on style without smothering the complex psychology of his characters.
Hunnam (who also produced) is the main attraction here, and Waldo suits him well, in part because the actor seems so uncomfortable with his own good looks and is forever searching for ways to demonstrate that there’s more to him beneath the surface. The suburban Sherpa shtick of the film’s first two-thirds is amusing enough, but also a bit of a put-on, like the Timberlake fedora and bright yellow fixie (Waldo’s sworn off fossil fuels) — an affectation just waiting to be reversed. And yet, Hunnam himself has broken from the herd enough that this independent streak carries over to the character. What case (or script) would entice either of them back?
Though Waldo makes a big show of not wanting to return, he doth protest much more than he doth resist. After ex-lover Lorena (Morena Baccarin) drives all the way out to his trailer, hoping to convince him to investigate whether Pinch really killed his wife, two separate parties show up and pressure him (with fists and frying pans) not to take the case. But when his old flame is discovered burned to death in her car, the whole investigation becomes personal, and Waldo agrees to look into Pinch’s possible innocence.
Some PI stories belabor the heavy-conscience side of things, featuring solitary scenes of the detective knocking back liquor at the piano or the bar. “Last Looks,” which Howard Michael Gould adapted from his novel of the same name, boils it down to a confessional exchange between Waldo and an unlikely therapist: Jayne White (Lucy Fry), a flirtatious teacher from the kindergarten where Pinch sends his daughter. By way of absolution, she shaves his beard with a disposable pink razor, and Hunnam — er, Waldo — emerges from under all that shrubbery looking his true charismatic self.
The moment when Waldo emerges clean-shaven is more satisfying than the film’s big finale, although Kirkby sustains the kookiness to the end. Even those who appear for just a scene or two — such as Dominic Monaghan as a seemingly coked-out personal injury lawyer and Cliff “Method Man” Smith as a family-minded rapper named Swag Doggg — leave lasting impressions.
As far back as “The Big Sleep” (that most notoriously complicated of noirs), the crafters of L.A.-set whodunits have realized that the minute-by-minute pleasures of following a case far outweigh however the darn thing turns out. “Last Looks” isn’t nearly so complex as that classic — all the clues are there in plain sight, and Waldo delivers a long monologue at the end to explain how they fit — but it finds the journey more interesting than the destination. Here, the loopy trip radiates much the same sun- and star-struck feel of Hollywood-set Elmore Leonard adaptations (“Get Shorty,” “Be Cool” and “Jackie Brown”), poking fun at an industry where stars can literally get away with murder … and the weirdest of beards.