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.

A politician once said that the secret to diplomacy was to know your own mind and make sure your opponent knows it too. The same is true of satire. Since The Last Supper doesn't know its own mind, how can it expect the audience to swallow this poison?

Graham Young (Hugh O'Conor), the murderous teen in The Young Poisoner's Handbook, is not as delightful as the spinsters in Arsenic, but at least he doesn't delude himself into thinking he's making the world a better place by his actions. Instead, Graham poisons for the most prosaic of reasons: to extinguish his rival for a girl's affections, to dispose of his wicked stepmother, or--and this seems to be what really compels him--for the sheer scientific pleasure of concocting the world's first homeopathic recipes for murder.

First-time director Benjamin Ross tells a deliriously wicked, true story about this weird, pathological schoolboy in 1960s Britain, whose fascination with chemistry--and devotion to the scientific method of testing and observing--leads him to ply his hobby on family and friends. Like The Last Supper, The Young Poisoner's Handbook chronicles how misdirected energies, even those bordering on genius, can have sinister results.

Unlike Supper, though, Handbook succeeds in making its protagonist human and sympathetic. Ross doesn't try for mere satire, but aims for something far more surreal. With his walleyed stare--you can always see his entire cornea, and he hardly blinks at all--Graham has the static energy of a wound spring held down forcibly. He spends virtually the whole movie perched on a shaky ledge between sanity and incurable dementia; he'd be better off committing to one course of action rather than suffer the torment of indecision. You might be surprised to find yourself rooting for him to kill--even hoping subconsciously that he won't get caught, while knowing that he will.

O'Conor's interpretation of Graham confirms him as a promising talent. His last significant role was as the young Christie Brown in My Left Foot--a performance equaled in craftsmanship to Daniel Day-Lewis' playing Christie as an adult--and he has since matured magnificently as an actor. He's the center of the action and totes the burden of carrying every scene with strength and clarity of purpose. If the audience didn't identify with him, the movie would be a chore to watch. Instead, even with his pallid skin and bony, slightly off-putting gaze, O'Conor makes Graham seem like the sole survivor of a stagnant culture; his strangeness is a defense mechanism for intolerable complacency.

You come to realize that the crushing boredom of middle-class life in England--exemplified by the painfully wretched "Dickie Boone" TV show that everyone constantly watches--must seem so oppressive to the self-motivated spirit that the only options are murder or suicide. Graham, of course, opts for murder--the imminently more practical option. You have to admit it: There's something admirable in a kid who has the drive to pursue a hobby--any hobby--rather than just give up. That says something, doesn't it?

The Young Poisoner's Handbook. Cinepix. Hugh O'Conor, Anthony Sher. Written by Jeff Rawle and Benjamin Ross. Directed by Ross. Opens May 3 at the Inwood.

The Last Supper. Sony Pictures. Courtney B. Vance, Cameron Diaz, Annabeth Gish, Jonathan Penner, Ron Eldard. Written by Dan Rosen. Directed by Stacy Title. Opens April 26.

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