American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Too many films about the dead involve mourning, and too few involve laughter. Yet at lucky funerals there is a desire to remember the good times. The most charismatic man I ever knew was Bob Zonka, an editor at the Sun-Times, and even five years after his death his friends gathered just to tell stories and laugh about them. Yes, he was infuriating in the way he treasured his bad habits, but it was all part of the package. There is the impulse to try to analyze the departed, figure out their motives, ask the questions they never answered, wonder what they were really thinking.
"Last Orders," Fred Schepisi's new film, based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by Graham Swift, knows all about those stages in the process of grieving and celebration. It is about four old friends in London who, at one level, simply drank together for years at a pub called the Coach & Horses, and at another level came as close as people can to sharing each others' lives. Now one has died--the most enigmatic and problematic of the four--and the three survivors and the dead man's son gather in the pub with his ashes and set off on a journey to Margate, where he thought to retire. His wife does not make the journey but chooses to spend the day with their retarded daughter.
The three friends and the widow all have faces that evoke decades of memories for moviegoers. In a certain way, we have lived our lives with them, so it feels right to find them on this mission at the end.
Tom Courtenay electrified me in "Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" when I was still in college. I had lunch with him in 1967 in London, and in a sense have just gotten up from that meal. David Hemmings was the photographer in "Blow-Up," the movie everybody was talking about when I became a film critic. Michael Caine was one of the first stars I ever interviewed (about "Hurry, Sundown," a film he had a hard time keeping a straight face about). Bob Hoskins joined the crowd later, with "The Long Good Friday," walking onto the screen with the authority of lifelong leaseholder. Helen Mirren, I became aware of when I saw "Cal" at the 1984 Cannes festival. Ever since, she has been brave in her film choices, going her own way, so that her character's behavior here mirrors her career.