Chances are good that a film like “The Last,” which takes place during Rosh Hashanah and is about a Holocaust survivor and three generations of her Jewish-American family, will be about rejoicing, introspection and repentance.
But the film was written and directed by Jeff Lipsky. A John Cassavetes protégé and Ingmar Bergman fan, Lipsky’s previous projects with similarly unassuming titles and a focus on family – including “Flannel Pajamas” and “Twelve Thirty” – have been unapologetically provocative and depict characters who are far from repentant. “The Last” follows suit.
The film features Nana, a beloved 92-year-old German-born matriarch (Rebecca Schull) who, upon the announcement of her brain cancer and plans for euthanasia, informs her great-grandson Josh (AJ Cedeño), a Modern Orthodox Jew, and his wife Olive (Jill Durso), who has converted from Catholicism, that she is not Jewish. In fact, during World War II she was a member of the Nazi Party, was stationed as a nurse at Auschwitz, and later emigrated to the U.S. posing as a Jewish refugee. And she is still an unrepentant anti-Semite.
This has all the makings of an intriguing story. But Lipsky’s movies are also known for placing provocation over polish and dialectic discourse over cinematography. And so “The Last” isn’t a very appealing piece of storytelling.
Nearly 45 uninterrupted minutes of the film are devoted to Nana casually dropping her bombshells in close-ups that illogically cut back and forth to close-ups of Josh and Olive’s awkward reactions. Every character – including Josh’s agnostic father (Reed Birney) and emotionally distraught mother (Julie Fain Lawrence) – gets a lengthy monologue that is similarly void of action, dramatic tension and interesting visual perspective.
Throughout the film, actors struggle to make the often ungainly writing come across as plausible but don’t succeed, resulting in stilted and distracting performances by everyone except the wonderful Schull.
In short, “The Last” is filled with fearlessly uncinematic and unquestionably odd choices that are no doubt deliberate but never hit their mark. They leave you wondering whether this would have made a better novel or play, which is never a good takeaway from a film.