Jagged little pills

Two poisoners' tales revisit Arsenic and Old Lace with differing results

Here's news that could presage a disturbing trend at the movies: Two films opening in Dallas within days of each other both deal with nebbish murderers whose decisions to poison family members, friends, and enemies alike form the basis of comedy. But The Last Supper is merely a peculiarly unfunny satire, whereas The Young Poisoner's Handbook is a quick, nasty, and ghoulishly clever little comic thriller.

The murderers in The Last Supper are a dull, predictable lot: five proudly liberal grad students (Courtney B. Vance, Cameron Diaz, Annabeth Gish, Jonathan Penner, and Ron Eldard) who decide they can rid the world of unpleasantness (read: anyone who disagrees with them) by killing politically active conservatives before they do some real harm. "If you could travel through time, wouldn't you kill Adolf Hitler to prevent his genocide of the Jews?" is their constant refrain. It's a loaded question that points to their flaw in logic: How does one know who the next Hitler will be?

Therein lies the impetus for the plot of The Last Supper. The students invite a series of reactionaries to their home, allegedly for dinner and conversation, but it's really a proving ground for their politically correct litmus test. If you answer the questions wrong--if, for instance, you espouse support for Nazis, gay-bashers, or anti-abortion activists, or you oppose saving spotted owls or in-school condom distribution--they offer you up some spiked wine, a hearty toast, and an exclusive plot under their private tomato garden. In one of the film's few successful stabs at irony, the garden stands as a living metaphor of the death these students so casually sow.

The idea of The Last Supper is full of promise, as the longstanding success of Arsenic and Old Lace should attest. But the screenwriter, Dan Rosen, and the director, Stacy Title, bypass the essential quality that made that play a classic: One could sympathize with the murderers. In Arsenic, two kindly old ladies who run a boarding house decide, with the best of intentions, to dispose of the lonely, elderly pensioners who rent their rooms. They're performing euthanasia--not murder--and the sweetness of their dispositions is the goofy contrast that generates humor.

The Last Supper sinks because it can't coast on the likability of its characters: There isn't a positive personality floating around in the whole movie. The students' first victim, Zack (Bill Paxton), is a detestable pig, an intolerant warmongering redneck. It's so easy to hate Zack, you wonder why Rosen and Title muddle up the narrative by making the students such irredeemable intellectual snobs. Zack is the students' uninitiated guest, and he's woefully underqualified for the petty, rude, and arrogant verbal games they play. It soon becomes apparent that the students are not interested in well-reasoned political discourse, but merely seek to reinforce their own belief structures. Zack posed no real threat to the students--mostly because they're beneath him and not worth the murderous, frothing rage he'd have to conjure up to take them out. The students' intellectual laziness--their discomfort, even anger, at having to defend themselves against the flawed but impassioned logic of the hoi polloi--leads to Zack's murder, and the plot snowballs off course from there on.

Perhaps the primary flaw in The Last Supper is that it's badly undercooked as far as satires go. The Broadway showman David Merrick once defined satire as "what closes on Saturday night," and while I've never subscribed to the narrow-mindedness of that sentiment, it's a valid point that bad satire deserves to close. And The Last Supper is bad satire; it seems like a movie short that's had a lot of air blown up its ass to stretch it to 90 minutes.

The short film, like the short story, is unique. It isn't just a briefer version of a full-length work, but a particular creation, full of irony and sharply drawn characters. A short film doesn't need to provide much background--or even a realistic story--to suspend disbelief. But a feature film does, and The Last Supper falls flat on that score. A short would never expect the audience to wonder how it is that these grad students are able to lure so many unsuspecting victims (including a 17-year-old high-school student) to their lair without any friends or family members getting suspicious. Yet those are precisely the questions that a feature audience, spurred on by long dull spots and repetitive, protracted, superfluous, and mostly unfunny scenes, has the time, the right, and even the duty to ask. In addition, the students appear to have no lives outside of the murder plots, spending half the movie huddled around dinner plates or reclining in the kitchen; it's like watching a long, slow episode of "Friends."

The script misses the chance to say something meaningful--such as a statement on the paradox of modern liberalism (it could have tried to be a politically correct version of The Star Chamber)--but neither does it just try to have fun, like Shallow Grave. Instead, the theme boils down to some variation of "so many Republicans, so little time." That's an exceedingly simplistic approach for a film that wants to be accepted as savvy and smart, and The Last Supper pisses away the chance to be taken seriously from the loopy opening down to an "I-told-you-so" ending that is as needlessly ambiguous as it is witless.

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