Save Michael Keaton

rex michaelkeaton2v Save Michael KeatonThe Last Time
Running Time 96 minutes
Written and Directed by Michael Caleo
Starring Michael Keaton, Brendan Fraser, Amber Valletta

A fine actor without a workable script is like a new kitchen without a stove: Nothing really cooks. When it comes to underrated, underutilized actors with their careers in lockout mode, none deserves a break more than Michael Keaton. From Batman to Beetlejuice, with a pit stop in Shakespeare and Mr. Mom, he’s accomplished, versatile and camera-ready. (As the charming but terrifying tenant from hell in John Schlesinger’s Pacific Heights, he also made domestic horror unforgettable.) So why has Michael Keaton all but disappeared from the Hollywood radar? Maybe the wrong people are choosing his scripts. Maybe he can’t read. The Last Time is not going to change the status quo.

Set in the heartless, angst-riddled world of high-pressure sales and heavily influenced by David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, The Last Time focuses on two men whose competitive combat drives and nearly destroys them both. Jamie (Brendan Fraser), a hotshot salesman from the Midwest, moves to New York, full of optimism, to take a position with a powerful sales organization. Jamie’s a friendly, eager, clean-cut, naïve preppy, so green he doesn’t even wear the right shirts. Ted (Michael Keaton) is the senior force in the company, a cold, cynical S.O.B. who lives in a state of permanent rage. Ted has two talents—he can sell a popsicle to a polar bear, and he knows how to make everyone feel inferior—and one ambition: to see the new boy disgraced, ruined and on his knees begging for mercy. He begins by making Jamie feel like a fool at every sales meeting, then moves in on his fiancé Belisa (the beautiful model turned actress Amber Valletta). He even gets Jamie drunk, carries him home unconscious, helps Belisa undress him, then makes love to her next to Jamie’s body, in the same bed. When she leaves Jamie, he begs Ted to become his mentor, and in a rare moment of conscience, Ted feels guilty enough to move some of his own sales to the younger salesman, who can’t seem to get to first base in the company. As Belisa becomes his obsession and their affair intensifies, Ted neglects his duties, his own sales fall off, the company loses money, the sales force is fired, the firm closes down, and everyone loses everything from their stock options to their dental plans. In the process, both men change. Trying to be more like Ted, Jamie turns aggressive, sour, foul-mouthed and vicious. Mortified by what he’s done to Jamie, Ted alters his own image and thinks about returning to his old career as a schoolteacher. Then comes the shocker, neatly gift-wrapped in a contrived climax right out of Mamet’s old word processor. All that remains are the ways in which the dynamics of loss and betrayal eventually affect all of the central players. I wish I could tell you all the work was worth it, but everything about The Last Time carries the conviction of a trial in which the jury foreman turns out to be the defendant’s brother-in-law.

Meanwhile, two excellent, underappreciated actors get a rare chance to stretch. Mr. Keaton as Ted—tough as a barnacle, but sensitive enough to read Oscar Wilde and quote Ralph Waldo Emerson—and Mr. Fraser as Jamie, a frustrated, simmering wimp with a streak of mendacity waiting to surface and torch, are sharp counterparts. Alas, they deserve better. Writer-director Michael Caleo, a contributor to The Sopranos, should know a thing or two about realism. But for all the good work that went into it, the movie is as phony as a game of three-card monte. For starters, it was filmed, for some insanely bizarre reason, in New Orleans, which looks nothing like New York. Yellow cabs, yes, but on wide Manhattan streets with endless parking spaces, under umbrellas of green shade trees? Here is a New York that could only been dreamed up at Disneyland.