For audiences that love melodramatic soap operas about wealthy people who gamble and kill each other, Last Will sounds like a good bet. Starring Tatum O’Neal in what is alleged to be the true story of Kansas City’s Hayden Emery, a woman who marries well and six months later is framed for the murder of her husband, the film is the antithesis of a good anything. The cast includes a handful of familiar faces (James Brolin, Peter Coyote, Tom Berenger, and Moon Unit Zappa) who may not have been taking their jobs as actors seriously, judging by performances that range from awful to indifferent.
The story, in an appropriate nutshell, boils down to this: a woman marries a rich guy, they are madly in love, his brothers think she’s a gold digger, the husband dies under mysterious circumstances (if being kidnapped by your brothers and held hostage in a casino can be considered “mysterious”), and the brothers attempt to frame the wife for murder.
There is no chemistry between any of the characters; each performer seems to be acting in a different movie or to have been filmed in a room by him- or herself. Last Will is stylistically incongruous, with the most interesting performance provided by James Brolin. I’ve always been James-Brolin-neutral; I’ll watch him act, but I wouldn’t watch a film just because he’s in it. His quirky interpretation of the role of Detective Sloan brings what’s-with-this-guy levity to a film that is dismally second rate (or maybe third…fifth?).
Not that the actors had great material. The police procedures and investigation are laughable plot conveniences; the dialogue is unnatural. For some reason, halfway through Last Will, there is an interminable montage of happy scenes from Frank and Hayden’s marriage—all of which the audience has already seen—accompanied by a drippy song. It’s excruciating.
Perhaps the cast realized how preposterous the screenplay was, and decided it wasn’t worth the effort. It’s impossible to believe they got paid for anything more than showing up. Although Last Will is “based on a true story,” an unenthusiastic bit of research produced no results for “Hayden Emery,” “Frank Emery,” “Kansas City millionaire murdered,” “Kansas City judge blows his brains out” and similar strings. This is not disturbing; movies that claim to be based on true stories but ignore all the facts should change the names of the characters so naïve viewers will not confuse them with history.
The greatest disappointment of Last Will is its look. Movies about scheming, murdering, greedy millionaires (and their accountant wives) should look at least as good as Dynasty. Instead, Last Will disappoints with ugly wardrobe, ugly hair styles, and limited sets (sort of nouveau low budget made-for-TV, although there are directors who could do a lot more with five million dollars). When you’re watching a movie and after ten minutes thinking, “Which would be worse—kissing Tom Berenger or Tatum O’Neal?” you know it isn’t that great American film for which you’ve been waiting (or even a b-Film Noir). Do yourself a favor…if you’re in the mood for well-written, outstandingly-acted murder investigations, find a Law & Order marathon, you’ll even get bathroom breaks.