By Aaron Cutler
By Amy Nicholson
By Simon Abrams
By Chris Klimek
By Nick Schager
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
The Last Supper is about liberal rage, so, by nature, it's a comedy. Directed by Stacy Title, the film takes off from a classic hypothetical parlor-game question: What if, as a time traveler, you met Hitler as a young man, innocent of his future crimes--do you murder him to prevent the horrors he will later cause?
In The Last Supper, this quandary inspires a group of liberal housemates to murder a series of right-wing bigmouths, on the assumption that all of them will--or at least might--otherwise have the same success in consolidating power that Hitler did.
Like most of the film's best jokes, this idea is subtextual and underdeveloped--it spoofs the liberal's defeatist presumption that reactionary values will always succeed (conservatives, of course, tend to the opposite presumption, just as quickly and even more hysterically). The characters in The Last Supper leap to this conclusion and engage in a sort of pre-emptive historical censorship.
Annabeth Gish, Jonathan Penner, Ron Eldard, Cameron Diaz and Courtney B. Vance--as grad students who share a lovely house in a small Iowa town--are in the habit of inviting a different guest to dinner, once a week, for a genteel discussion of the state of the world. One stormy night, by an odd circumstance, this guest is a macho truck driver (Bill Paxton) who's given Eldard a lift home. The conversation turns a lot less genteel when he proves to be a stereotypical far-right lout, spouting off about how the Holocaust didn't really happen and so forth.
The truck driver taunts the roomies for their liberal impotence, and so they decide to change their weekly dinner arrangement. They make each weekly dinner guest a different representative of the right-wing community. This allows for a series of Special Guest Fascists--Charles Durning as a homophobic priest, Mark Harmon as a men's-movement chauvinist, Jason Alexander as an antienvironmentalist. There's a pro-lifer, a black nationalist, a library censor and so forth, straight through to the group's prize catch, a Limbaugh-style TV blowhard (Ron Perlman).
The hosts spend each dinner trying to dissuade the guest from his or her views. If, by dessert, it's clear that the guest is irredeemable, he or she is dosed with poisoned wine from the blue decanter, and the tomato patch out back gets some new compost. It could be called Arsenic and Fresh Radicchio.
Satiric license allows us to overlook some of the more obvious absurdities in Dan Rosen's script, like, for instance, nine prominent, missing citizens not being traceable to the last place they went for dinner. Now and then, we cut to Nora Dunn as a sheriff poking around in the vicinity, and this vague nod to plot movement is acceptable.
Less so is the thinness of characterization--five of the more attractive young actors now in films are given little to do. The always-exquisite Gish gets to portray a sexual awakening and Vance gets to go a little crazy, but the others must content themselves with looking shifty and troubled.
Even that would be enough if the film's level of satiric discourse were genuinely provocative. Where The Last Supper rings most tinny is in Rosen and Title's caricatures of right-wingers. Sadly, the venom that the dinner guests so proudly spew in this film probably does reflect extreme right-wing thought in the real world. The trouble with right-wing nuts with real political clout, however, is precisely that they are rarely so easy to spot.
Limbaugh is a professional toady and a buffoon--you can see him coming a mile away in the figurative as well as the literal senses. The more dangerous wackos are the subtler ones. Even more maddeningly, a superficial conservatism may mask a decent and progressive core. Check out Bob Dole's voting record; a sheep can wear wolves' clothing as well.
What a pity that Rosen and Title didn't play with these complexities in The Last Supper--to see the lefty killers driven to ferret out the ugliness of guests who knew how to hide it could have given the film a depth it now approaches only when Perlman's TV skunk appears and proves smooth and civilized dinner company. This, unaccountably, makes the conspirators reconsider.
Rosen and Title's crude approach--introducing a new cretin in each scene, so we can giggle as they're undone--has its dopey fun. Certainly there's some satisfaction in seeing poison poured into the mouths it usually pours out of, and I can't think of a nobler purpose to which right-wing extremists can be put than fertilizing tomatoes.
But a feature film can't get away with the same sort of rhetorical boldness as a political cartoon. Since good, self-effacing humor--as opposed to mindless gibing--is one of the few political advantages the left has over the right, liberals can't afford to scale down their standards for satire to where The Last Supper can be regarded as anything more than a guilty pleasure. Put bluntly, it generally takes right-wingers to be this simpleminded.
The Last Supper:
Stacy Title; with Annabeth Gish, Courtney B. Vance, Jonathan Penner, Cameron Diaz, Ron Eldard, Ron Perlman, Bill Paxton, Nora Dunn, Mark Harmon, Charles Durning and Jason Alexander.
Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!