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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
Black comedies are rare entities in the movie world. Very rarely are we, the audience, treated to the delights that reside within the confines of the black comedy. These sorts of films often lack commercial prospects and likable protagonists. This happens to alienate the mass audience by and large, which obviously isn’t good for exposure. 1995’s The Last Supper is another in a long line of failed black comedies. Like most of them, however, there is a lot to like about The Last Supper, primarily its strong cast and interesting, prescient premise.
I don’t remember much about the political climate of the early 90s. I remember voting for Bill Clinton in a mock election in my elementary school, and I remember my parents being upset with me for that. I kind of sort of remember George H.W. Bush, but I’m probably thinking of Dana Carvey’s famous impersonation. I cannot profess to be intimately familiar with the politics of that time period, as I was just a kid during the early 90s, not entering high school and becoming more politically aware until 1997, when the economy seemed strong to me and Clinton saw mass popularity and appeal. I cannot imagine that America was as grim at this time period as it is portrayed in The Last Supper, but I appreciate the great lengths the film goes to in order to try and get us to feel this way.
The film opens with Norman Arbuthnot (Ron Perlman), a Rush Limbaugh-like political cult of personality, espousing right-wing viewpoints on what appears to be a cable-access television show. Our group of protagonists, a group of liberal college graduate students, watches on in horror as they wait for their friend to show up for dinner. The group all rents an old farmhouse-style place while they work on their advanced degrees, and all bond over their liberalism and idealism. Their friend and roommate Pete (a nerdy Ron Eldard) finally shows up (his car died on the way home) and along with him is blue-collar truck driver Zack (Bill Paxton), who the group invites in for dinner for being kind to their friend. During dinner, however, the group is horrified to find out that Zack is a right-wing ex-Marine, and doesn’t cotton to their liberal ways. Events spiral out of control, and Zack is stabbed to death by one of the friends, Marc (a young Jonathan Penner), who is Jewish and took offense to Zack’s anti-Semitism and violent tendencies.
What follows could have been a look at what happens when five friends, united by a common political ideology, must share a horrifying secret. Instead, the group decides that they can replicate their actions, murdering anyone who doesn’t share their liberalism. They will, of course, give each person a chance to recant their over-the-top right-wingism first. The group racks up a significant body count, including an anti-gay crusading priest (Charles Durning), a corporate fat-cat and anti-environmentalist (Jason Alexander), and a date-rape apologist (Mark Harmon). The group of friends eventually begins to drift apart and act downright out of character, with Jude (a young Cameron Diaz) and Paulie (a cute Annabeth Gish) becoming antagonistic towards each other, Pete becoming more violent (shooting at birds instead of clay targets), Marc growing discontent in his relationship with Paulie, and Luke (Courtney B. Vance) becoming increasingly sociopathic.
The tension comes to a head nicely when Marc and Pete, who are about to leave town to get away from the problems the group has created for themselves, suddenly run afoul of Norman Arbuthnot in the airport. The two realize they have an opportunity to do the world a great “justice” by murdering him. Norman accepts their invitation into the house, and what follows is one of the greatest takedowns of politics that anyone committed to the screen in the 90s. It’s even better as it comes from the great Perlman, who at this point was probably best known from his days as a sitcom star on Beauty and the Beast. Perlman, the out-spoken right wing talker with the cigars and the loud mouth handily destroys each and every argument presented his way with a calm, cool wit and a sly smile at every turn. He knows what he’s doing, and he leaves the roommates absolutely stunned.
The full scene isn’t available on YouTube, but there is a clip uploaded at least:
The Last Supper is worth watching whether you’re a liberal or a conservative. Some of the themes it espouses are quite prescient, and though it was released in 1995, it still feels as if it could have come out more recently. It isn’t overly politically dated with specific references to the era, which was a smart choice by the writer and director. The Last Supper also works as a takedown of idealism, which is fairly rare in Hollywood. I can totally understand why it was a failure at the box office almost solely due to this aspect of the film. There are countless movies where the little guy is the hero and the big, loud, rich people are the enemies. In this movie, the big guy wins almost by default – the group is shown to absolutely be in the wrong because of their heinous actions. Of course, Arbuthnot himself is no angel either – and neither were the dinner guests that our protagonist roommates so ruthlessly murdered time and time again. The film asks us: did the murdered dinner guests really deserve to die? At the end of the day, the message of the film is that it’s ok to have your political beliefs, but for the love of everything please be reasonable about them as well.