So let’s talk about movie movies.
First, you’ve got your movies about movies, which range from the beloved classics (Sunset Blvd., Singin’ in the Rain) to the cult oddities (Barton Fink, The Stunt Man) to the amusing trifles (Bowfinger) to the less-said-the-better (Hollywood Ending).
Then you’ve got your movies that sort of know they’re movies, i.e., meta-movies, a diverse genre that includes such intriguing experiments as Adaptation and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.
Then there’s the movie-within-movie movies, notable entries being Kiss of the Spider Woman, The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Almodovar’s Bad Education.
And finally, there’s that most unsung of movie-related movie genres, movies about movies-that-were-never-meant-to-be-movies, or what I like to call movie-without-movie movies. This week, this esoteric category expands with the release of Ben Affleck’s docudrama-suspense-satire Argo, so naturally, we’ve decided to initiate it into the club with a Smackdown against… well, pretty much the only other member of the genre, Jeff Nathanson’s The Last Shot (2004). The movies inside the movies may be fake, but the Smackdown is bracingly, in-your-face real.
Sure, everyone knows about the 50 American hostages the Iranians captured at the American embassy in late 1979 and refused to release them unless we met their demands of electing Ronald Reagan president. But far less celebrated, mostly because it was classified for many years, is the tangential story of six Americans who narrowly escaped the embassy and found temporary refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador.
How to get them out safely before their whereabouts are discovered? CIA agent Tony Mendez (director-star Affleck, chiseled features hiding behind a shaggy ’70s beard) dreams up a plan so crazy it just might work, and then later just might help inject laughs into an otherwise deadly serious thriller: Create a cover story for the six as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for an obviously lousy Star Wars knock-off named Argo.
Mendez arrives in Hollywood; recruits top-tier makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and jaded, old-school producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to run a fake production office and help make the project look credible; and then heads for Iran to assign roles to the gang, despite their obvious lack of movie- business savvy, their suspicion of Mendez, and their quite reasonable doubt about the plan’s merits.
Fearless FBI agent Joe Devine (Alec Baldwin), newly assigned to a miserable Rhode Island post, comes up with a scheme to catch mobster Tommy Sanz (Tony Shalhoub) in the act of Teamster racketeering for films. All he needs is a gullible filmmaker who would be cheerfully oblivious to the scheme. He finds one in Steven Schats (Matthew Broderick), a frustrated L.A. screenwriter with a dream-project screenplay called Arizona, about a woman trying to find herself in the desert while dying of breast cancer.
Gradually muddying the waters is that Schats’ passion for the desert melodrama proves so contagious that Devine begins focusing more energy on getting the film made than nailing Sanz. To complicate matters further, Schats is torn between casting his crazy, struggling-actress girlfriend (Calista Flockhart) or a crazier, sexpot star (Toni Collette), who demands the lead role for herself. On top of which, Devine’s FBI superiors get bitten by the bug and start giving studio notes on the script. And Schats’ hapless brother Marshal (Tim Blake Nelson) threatens to reveal the truth about the script’s supposed non-fiction origins.
All of which keep us wondering to the end, will the first shot of this phony flick turn out to be… The Last Shot? (See what I did there?)
From its galvanizing opening sequence, which efficiently sums up modern Iranian history and then harrowingly depicts the ’79 storming of the embassy in Tehran that started the hostage crisis, it’s clear that with Argo, Ben Affleck’s directorial skills have taken a huge leap forward from his previous effort, the fine but forgettable heist/romance flick The Town (2010). The bad news: Everything after that confirms how little Affleck has evolved as an actor. He remains a bland, non-descript presence onscreen, and his weakest directorial decision by far (as with The Town) was giving his mopey, colorless character center stage.
Which wouldn’t be such a shame if it hadn’t come at the expense of giving the delightful Arkin and Goodman such short shrift. Those going in expecting an even balance between the comedy of the sham movie aspect and the clock-racing tension of the escape should be braced for disappointment: The CIA-meets-Hollywood sequence is fairly brief and pretty much abandoned early on. Most of the film takes place in Iran and focuses on the tension over whether or not the escapees can learn their cover stories and successfully pull off the ruse. That the cover story happens to be movie-making becomes rather arbitrary in the second half, which is pure Will They Escape in Time? suspense. Well-made suspense, absolutely, but nothing particularly fresh, and all but devoid of the first half’s sprinkles of humor. As grateful as one is to Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio for not trying to commercialize this story or trivialize it with easy potshots at Hollywood, one is still left slightly frustrated that the movie’s most shopworn elements are so much more prominent than its original ones.
The Last Shot suffers no such lack of levity. On the contrary, it’s all levity, just not particularly funny levity. It is very busy, though, with an enormous cast of terrific actors wandering in and out of the story, among them, Ray Liotta as Baldwin’s supervisor and brother. (All those actual Baldwin brothers to choose from, and they went with Liotta?) But every time a fresh new character pops up or a plot complication starts to develop, it gets quickly abandoned, in many cases, never to return.
As a prime example: Collette (proving once again there’s virtually no role she can’t play) shows up at the halfway mark as a daffy Australian ingénue, creating enormous comic possibilities like, for instance, how Broderick will deal with his certifiably insane leading lady, who at one point, demonstrates her drug-free status by peeing into a wine glass at a restaurant table (it sounds funnier than it plays). But no, her lunacy never comes up again, and before we know it, the movie’s over, yanking the plug on itself as abruptly as the Feds do to Arizona. It’s a relatively brisk 93 minutes, but it would have had to have been twice as long for all the stories it juggles to pay off. Broderick and Baldwin make a likable comic duo, but their chemistry and star power simply aren’t enough to sell this half-baked material.
The story was “inspired” by a real case that bears no resemblance to the film, but considering how few laughs the liberties yield, one can’t help but wonder if it should have maintained as much fidelity to the actual story as the largely fact-based Argo. Last Shot was the writing-directing debut for A-list screenwriter Nathanson (Speed 2, Rush Hour 2, The Terminal, among others), and having brought in slightly less than $500K at the box office (which I’d venture to bet is even less than Arizona would have made), it remains his sole directing credit. So apparently, the system occasionally works.
On the one hand, we have Argo, which could have embellished its non-fiction story just a tad more, or at the very least, reshaped it to push its strongest aspects to the foreground. Arkin and Goodman are both such welcome presences here (and let’s face it, in any film), that it’s disappointing to see them relegated to essentially extended cameos. We wind up with a smart, well-executed nail-biter that teases us with the prospect of being more than that early on but doesn’t quite fulfill its promise. On the other hand, we have The Last Shot, which could have stood far less embellishing, or at the very least, one or two fewer subplots. In short: Argo is a thriller that I wish had more laughs. The Last Shot is a comedy that I wish had some. The easy choice here is Argo.
A somewhat closer call would be the MWM (Movie Within Movie) Smackdown: Argo vs. Arizona! The former looks fun but cheesy and derivative (though with probably excellent makeup effects by Oscar-winner Chambers); the latter is undoubtedly heartfelt but clearly pretentious and sappy. On balance, though, I’d rather see a bad labor of love than a competent rip-off. Congratulations, Steven Schats, on your film Arizona nabbing the first and only MWM Smackdown title! Hopefully you’ll use your new-found clout to make a better movie than The Last Shot.