In a telling example of how bad things can happen to creative people, the prosecution presents The Last Thing He Wanted. How does a director as stellar as Dee Rees (Mudbound, Pariah) go so thunderously wrong adapting a 1996 novel by the great Joan Didion, with a cast headed by Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, and Willem Dafoe? Here’s Exhibit A.
Incoherence courses through this Netflix Original, a 1980s-set political thriller that Rees wrote with Marco Villalobos. Anne Hathaway — her natural luminosity dimmed down to zero — plays Elena McMahon, a D.C. journalist who’s been told to stop reporting on the Reagan-era scandal she’s been covering, about U.S. funding of the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua. Her new assignment at the fictional Atlantic Post (a less timid Didion named the real Washington Post) is to report on the president’s 1984 re-election campaign. “Some real things have happened lately,” says Elena in voice-over. “I want to know why.” Good luck with that, sister.
Instead, the film sends Elena globe-trotting around Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Los Angeles, and Miami, for reasons that remain murky. There’s something about her gunrunning, dementia-plagued daddy, Richard (Willem Dafoe), who needs her to help him pull off one last job that takes her back to the — wait for it — Contras. Things get worse when Elena encounters Treat Morrison, a shady diplomat, played by Ben Affleck as if a stick had been permanently placed up his ass. For obscure reasons, none having to do with sexual chemistry, Elena hops into bed with Treat. For his part, the bureaucrat looks far more aroused eating pie with Secretary of State George Schultz (Julian Gamble).
Amid such confusing, incoherent doings, the divorced Elena phones her unhappy daughter at boarding school, takes a job as a maid at a resort run by an ex-pat played by Toby Jones, and seeks guidance from fellow journalist Alma (Rosie Perez). If she could help us negotiate this movie, we’d all be in her debt as well. It’s not as if Didion ever held the hands of readers to get them through the thickets of her biting prose. But the author’s provocative look at the moral crisis of a reporter who gets personally caught up in the story she’s covering had the advantage of a central theme. The movie settles for a series of baffling loose ends. In the novel, Didion mercilessly exposed the hollow core of American democracy. On film, The Last Thing He Wanted settles for just being hollow. It’s the last thing any of us wanted.