Last Good Time, The (2006): Starring Armin Mueller-Stahl

Armin Mueller-Stahl delivers a towering performance in Bob Balaban’s The Last Good Time, a poignant, finely-observed comedy-drama about an old man whose life changes dramatically as a result of a fateful encounter with a young woman.

Goldwyn faces a tough challenge in marketing an intimate, often slow film that not only lacks conventional action or drama , but three of its four characters are senior citizens.

Mueller-Stahl plays Joseph Kopple, an elegant 70 year-old widower, who still clings to the memories of his beautiful wife, whose untimely death also signaled mental dissolution for him. A retired musician, he’s now hounded by the IRS for failure to pay taxes on his pension. The only grace in his lonely, fastidious life, mostly spent in his walk-up Brooklyn apartment, is the nightly violin-playing.

One evening, Joseph witnesses a nasty fight between a young couple upstairs, which ends with Charlotte (Olivia D’Abo) being kicked out of the apartment by b.f. Eddie (Adrian Pasdar). With all of her belongings thrown out of the window, Joseph picks up her lipstick and key, two symbolic items that will later prove crucial. As the freezing Charlotte has no place to go, Joseph takes her in and gradually they develop a strange friendship.

On the surface, The Last Good Time centers on the bittersweet relationship between two very different individuals. Indeed, the script, co-written by Balaban and MaLaughlin, stresses the huge gaps in the characters’ age, education, and lifestyle. But after the first reel, it becomes clear that the film’s goal is actually to challenge our pre-conceived notions and stereotypes about aging.

Director Balaban succeeds in steering away from sentimental melodramatics and from imposing obvious turning points on the central relationship, which grows naturally and even involves a tender, totally unexpected sex scene. Lacking the crude sitcom humor of a commercial hit like Grumpy Old Men, the filmmakers refuse to judge or pander to any of their characters.

Pic is excellent in chronicling the importance that Joseph attaches to order and routine, particularly his daily visits to a nursing home, where Howard Singer (Lionel Stander), his 89-year-old friend resides. Most of the humor in based on the interaction between Joseph and Howard, a dying man who’s not lost his sharp tongue and mental vigor. The scene where the two men smoke cigars, get drunk and reminisce about sex is as funny as it is touching.

As the film’s emotional center, Mueller-Stahl renders a splendid lyrical performance–he’s a rare actor who, by projecting inner verve and not just dialogue, always serves notice. Ultimately, tale’s power draws on the camera’s long rests on his expressive face. That D’Abo is less impressive may be a result of her less developed role, as story is told from Joseph’s P.O.V. What Charlotte brings to Joseph’s dreary existence is well established, but it’s not always clear how she feels toward him.

A stellar supporting cast includes the irascible Stander and the magnificent Stapleton, as a chatty neighbor whose friendly gestures are at first rejected by Joseph.

Lenser Raschke and editor Winborne imbue the film with an arresting visual style, using uninterrupted long takes and radiant panning to convey the changing physical–and emotional–space between Joseph and Charlotte.

The filmmakers struggle a bit too hard to end the story on an uplifting note, which undermines the more ambiguous tone, but this doesn’t mar the emotional impact of an extremely quiet and resonant film that is as sparing in words as it’s abundant in meanings.