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The Last Movie: awfully clever, but lacks a strong heart

Nataliya Alyexeyenko and Elizabeth Gondek in The Last Movie.

2.5 out of 4 stars

The Last Movie
Written by
Bruce Pittman
Directed by
Bruce Pittman
Bruce Pittman, Lawrence Bayne, Elizabeth Gondek

Nestled together like Russian dolls, the movies in The Last Movie are countless, and with good reason. Short on budget but long on lore, writer/director Bruce Pittman draws heavily on the proud history of film to explore the sullen craft of filmmaking. The exercise is fashionably meta, awfully clever and, compared with most of these involuted conceits, less airily abstract and more dramatically grounded. In the end, though, it's still just an exercise, a brainy meditation stuffed with smart cells yet lacking a strong heart.

The premise: At the behest of a typically Philistine producer, writer/director Nick Crawley (Pittman himself) sets out to remake an artsy little Russian film. When he pops the original into his DVD player, we see what Nick does – that is, Movie #1, a subtitled noir flick, all black and white and shadows, whose emerging plot is itself indebted to classics like Double Indemnity and The PostmanAlways Rings Twice. Occasionally, Pittman cuts away from the unfolding Russian picture and back to Nick, who is also the subject of a documentary profile that takes us to …

Movie #2 – the doc about the making of the remake of Movie #1. Still with me? Anyway, back and forth we go, from the noir original to Nick offering his commentary: "I love that opening"; "I like the way the director uses faces". In other words, Pittman is not only playing Nick but employing him to coyly praise Pittman's artistry in Movie #1. Still care? Actually, yes. These involutions may be hard to explain in print, but they're surprisingly easy to watch onscreen and, at this early point, dance along quite briskly.

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It gets even more intriguing when Nick, faced (like Pittman) with having to squeeze his big ideas into a bad budget, polishes off the script and tackles the casting. He finally settles on his choice for the femme fatale role, an actress in her middle years, but the producer takes one look and yowls, "Can't we go younger?" Her name is Elizabeth (Beth Gondek), a performer whose considerable natural talent is matched only by her equally abundant insecurities. Nick wants her for his "psychological" approach to the remake; simultaneously, however, Pittman is using her for a similarly interior take on the business of acting, which thrusts us into ...

Movie #3, the psycho-drama of Elizabeth. This begins as a realistic, nuts-and-bolts account of the pre-shooting process: lighting tests, wardrobe selection, rehearsals with her male co-star (with whom, the acting community being so insular, she shares a sexual history). But when the actress decides to live for a few days in the actual house that will serve as the principal set, the better to familiarize herself with the role, the genres suddenly shift. As she descends deep into character and then, oops, further into madness, the noir that gave way to realism shifts again to horror. Now, amid the confines of that enclosed space, Pittman is channelling Repulsion and Psycho, treating us to everything from shower scenes through mirror images to close-ups of putrefying food, until our patience snaps and we just want to shout, "Enough, already, enough with the films and the film references and the films within the films."

Yes, rather than a hundred movies to vaguely ponder, how about one to truly watch? Of course, that's invariably the case with these po-mo exercises and their clever twists – so much room to think, so little to feel. I know, it seems mingy in our popcorn culture to complain that The LastMovie is nothing but food for thought – yet this is a feast with the aftertaste of a famine.

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