Friday, May 31, 2002

A tangy bitter brew

Movie: Last Orders

Posted on Fri, May 31, 2002 at 4:00 AM

***1/2
Our Rating: 3.50

For the first 10 minutes, the British bar buddies in Fred Schepisi's "Last Orders" appear to be so much smaller-than-life that they hardly seem worthy of a movie. But, once they set out on a road trip to the sea to scatter the ashes of their most garrulous member, it becomes clear that these ordinary people have some extraordinary stories to share.

The death of their crony Jack Dodds (Michael Caine) leads these old soldiers to a reexamination of a half-century of growing up -- then old -- together. The result is a film of epic scale with an intimate feeling, a saga of the ups and downs of friendships. We are taken on a flashback tour, as the characters (in separate, interwoven accounts) recall their time together serving in World War II, conspiring for career success in the '50s, and raising kids in the psychedelic '60s. Along the magical mystery tour, we witness their first pangs of romantic passion, their extramarital affairs, and even the heartbreak (for Jack) of having a daughter with a severe mental disability.

Promotion for the movie centers on the accomplished actors who play the older friends. Bob Hoskins is "Lucky" Ray, a gambler and longtime admirer of Jack's wife, Amy (Helen Mirren). David Hemmings is Lenny, a one-time boxer with annoying handlebar eyelashes who still likes a good fist fight, including one with Jack's son, Vince (Ray Winstone). Vince has still not come to terms with his father's wartime secret.

All of those veterans, particularly Hemmings, whose volatility prevents the situation from getting too maudlin, give credible performances. But it is the second cast, the younger actors who portray the friends in adolescence, that makes us care about the fate of these people. JJ Feild in particular lights up the screen as young Jack, exuberant at all the adventures life has to offer. When he and Amy (Kelly Reilly) have their first tumble in a pea patch, it is a deliciously sensual scene.

Director Schepisi ("Six Degrees of Separation"), who wrote the screenplay based on Graham Swift's novel, does a skillful job of stitching together the characters' memories of different time periods, while still advancing the rather sad contemporary story.

Though the survivors continue to down a lot of beers together, they no longer share a vision that life has any real rewards in store for them. A few less bitters could have made their dark brew a little easier on the palate.

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