When they're done right, there's something almost foolproof about a good road movie. The best in recent years, and my favorite movie of 2002 so far, is Fred Schepisi's exhilarating adaptation of the Graham Swift novel "Last Orders."
Set in 1989, this superb little picture, about three old South London drinking buddies being driven to the funeral of their best friend in a showroom Mercedes by the dead man's son, is so perfectly done, so knowingly written, consummately directed and beautifully acted - by the best and most resonant cast in any recent British movie except "Gosford Park" - that just thinking of it afterward puts a huge smile on my face.
Schepisi's movie, which deserves to be called the first major sleeper of 2002, is a funny/sad comedy/drama about a funeral and friendships, secrets and life changes, in which, as the survivors head toward Jack's last rites, we gradually learn some of the hidden underpinnings of their lives and relationships, the things that knit them together or drive them apart. The six main characters - Michael Caine as the late Jack; Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings and Bob Hoskins as Vic, Lenny and Ray, his three chums; Ray Winstone as Jack's son Vince; and Helen Mirren as Amy, the widow - are recognizable literary/movie types. Yet they're also stunningly individual, real characters.
Except for Vince, they've known each other since youth, and as they drive from London to Margate with Jack's ashes, they gab with that special old-pals mix of irascibility and tenderness, indulgence and impatience. As lifelong friends, they've earned the right to extravagantly rag each other, and some of them, especially group grouch Lenny, fully exploit that privilege. They have various vocations: Jack was a butcher/shopkeeper; Vic is an undertaker, Lenny an ex-boxer turned greengrocer, Ray a gambler, Vince a used-car dealer. The interaction in the car is a delight, but so are the flashback scenes, which take the story back half a century - and which, in some cases, feature a younger sextet of actors playing the same roles. (They're all amusingly matched to their mature counterparts, especially JJ Feild as the young Jack/Caine.) What we see as the journey rolls on is that the rowdy friendship concealed hurts and dark undercurrents that only now are surging up to the surface: issues involving Jack's and Helen's fidelity and their retarded daughter and, most pressingly, financial messes.
As they speed along the roads in a posh car and posh suits, they sometimes seem a bit uncomfortable. (Only Vince, the second-generation guy and well-fixed car dealer, looks like he really belongs.) But it's also clear that this is their last real fling and that they love each other - though typically, they find this hard to express. In some cases, it's easier for them to pick fights than display affection or grief. And we can tell that what they treasured most about Jack, the glue for their group, was his ebullience and brash wit, the ready smile and horseplay that reminded them where they all came from.
"Last Orders" reminded me of an old neglected favorite road movie of mine, Sidney Lumet's 1968 "Bye-Bye Braverman," about four New York Jewish writer friends on their way to a funeral in a red Volkswagen. But it's even better than "Braverman," or any other film of this type you can name: a peerless portrayal of male bonding and lifelong friendships. Yet that's only one of several reasons to cherish it.
Swift's book won the Booker prize, and the movie's script, by Schepisi, is both a faithful translation and a wonderful "opening out" - more literate and rich in social insight and character than all but a handful of recent films. But what makes "Last Orders" a true treasure is its cast. Compared with most movies in our theaters, with their $100 million budgets and give-me-a-break scripts, "Last Orders" is a little film, done on a relatively paltry $9 million budget. But I don't think it could have been done better at any price, and even that whole $100 million couldn't have gotten this movie a better cast.
Five of the six main actors - Caine, Courtenay, Hemmings, Hoskins and Mirren - represent a true modern aristocracy of over-50 British acting talent. They are actors who regularly, all on their own, steal entire movies from other ensembles, and the younger Winstone has the chops to stay with them. But perhaps "aristocracy" is the wrong word. What binds this great team together, especially the men, is their strongly visible lower- or lower-middle-class origins. They're mostly working-class movie heroes grown old; Caine himself is famous as the Cockney movie star who broke down social barriers in the '60s, flaunting his origins and accent the way The Beatles flaunted Liverpool. Swift's book and Schepisi's movie are both fond but sharp portrayals of the vanishing lifestyle of working-class families and small shopkeepers we Americans recognize mostly from dozens of British films, often starring these same actors (Caine in "Alfie," Courtenay in "Billy Liar," Hemmings in "Some People," Hoskins in "Mona Lisa"). Watching the guys together in the last-rites car - and observing the old quartet in the flashback scenes, kidding each other and hoisting ales (or in Vic's case, whiskey) in the local pub - is an unalloyed treat.
The camaraderie is so real and boisterous, so casually affectionate and funny, so explosive and raw, that you never feel these aren't old friends who've hung out and drunk together all their lives. (In real life, that's not too far from the truth.) These four, and also Winstone and Mirren, establish their characters so fully and play with each other so selflessly, you don't just admire them, you feel gratitude. They become what every filmmaker dreams of having: a perfect ensemble.
"Last Orders" is a movie I loved on first sight and, even more important, love in remembrance. Taken all in all, there's only one last thing to say about it. Go.
Directed and written by Fred Schepisi; based on the novel by Graham Swift; photographed by Brian Tufano; edited by Kate Williams; production designed by Tim Harvey; music by Paul Grabowsky; produced by Schepisi, Elisabeth Robinson. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday, March 1. Running time: 1:49. MPAA rating: R (sexuality and some language).
Jack Dodds - Michael Caine
Vic - Tom Courtenay
Lenny - David Hemmings
Ray - Bob Hoskins
Amy Dodds - Helen Mirren Vince Dodds - Ray Winstone
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune movie critic.