The apparently natural sparkle Anne Hathaway brings to her screen performances seems drained out of her for”The Last Thing He Wanted,” an adaptation of Joan Didion’s 1996 novel. That is apt. Hathaway’s journalist persona Elena McMahon is an exemplary Didion heroine: a woman resigned to her last nerve.
Directed by Dee Rees (“Mudbound”), who wrote the screenplay with Marco Villalobos, the film plunges Elena into the 1980s geopolitical chaos around the United States’s financing of Contras in Nicaragua. Didion’s book keeps details obscured: The book never mentions Ronald Reagan or his secretary of state. They look here; Schultz, performed by Julian Gamble, is almost a character. Elena’s misadventure motivation is personal: Her ailing father (Willem Dafoe) is himself a gun runner, and she imprudently chooses to carry out his last major score.
Using its flashbacks and forward, and first-person narration by an unnamed journalist writing in 1990s day, Didion’s book creates the feeling of a backward-running picture of a land-mine explosion. Rees jettisons the narrator and irons out the narrative to a arrangement. While not satisfactorily untangling the source material, she takes additional liberties with it.
The problem with the movie is not the strain, although the muddle. A shot of Hathaway half-standing in a corner of a hotel room, limbs limp, bathed through a window, does not hit home a lot as hammer on the forehead. And also making Ben Affleck’s uber-diplomat character look much more like George Reeves, the original Superman, compared to Affleck failed in 2006’s”Hollywoodland,” where he played with that role, is not exactly subtle. The wolf at the clothing of pop-culture-iconography sheep! What irony!