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Life is funny: we are here for our time, and we spend a lot of it reviewing what has happened to us, even as more things happen. And then we die, and all that's left of us is the memory of us in the minds of those we've touched. It's the memory of the departed that creates so much of what we might call spirit or soul, the non-material abstracts that manage to move us. I mean things like honor, fealty, love.
Last Orders shows how the memory of one Jack Dodds (Michael Caine) sends four old friends on a quest to fulfill the departed's last wishes. The film starts at their old hangout, the local pub. Ray (Bob Hoskins), Vic and Lenny all meet there. Vic, an undertaker, bears Jack's ashes with him in an urn in a box in a plastic shopping bag. Jack's last orders--a poignant pun with so much of the film set in bars--is to have his ashes scattered at sea at Margate, a long day's drive for the three friends and Jack's son, Vince, a car salesman.
They travel in a Mercedes borrowed from Vince's dealership. Along the way, they relive and recount the life and times of Jack. There are flashbacks aplenty, to the friends hanging out in the bar, to the war where Ray and Jack first met, to the days of youth when Jack first met his wife-to-be, Amy. (The older Amy is well played by Helen Mirren.) These scenes also give the film its romance, charming and sexy fun earning an R rating despite the absence of nudity.
The character revelations that carry this movie along are alternately humorous and upsetting, but always understated enough to keep a viewer involved. Nothing is too sappy or too melodramatic. The film does a good job of staying just at the boundary of sentimentality without crossing it. We find out why Lenny is embittered and why Vince has such a strained and strange relationship with his father.
We also meet Jack's first child, a retarded behemoth named Jane who he was unable to love in his lifetime. Amy has visited Jane regularly her whole life with no certainty that the grown child has any recognition of her. The tale of dispersing Jack's ashes coincides with Amy's finally letting go of the guilt and sense of obligation that keeps her tied to Jane.
This is one of those films where not a lot actually happens. The traveling distance isn't unbearable, and the character arcs, at least in the film's present-time aren't huge. Since the film covers their entire lives, we get a lot more sense of character development; but even so, there are no high stakes here: just six characters living their lives. By staying so consistently and calmly with them all, the film manages to get viewers to care about them. All are intrinsically likeable, and overall, it's a likeable movie with enough laughs to sweeten the sadness of the journey to scatter the ashes of the dead.
Based on a novel by Graham Swift, Last Orders is good entertainment when you're in a thoughtful, quiet mood. There are movies that are more fun to watch, but not many that care so much about their subjects.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.