The Last Shall Be First

Sometimes a clichéd story can be done for the umpteenth time before, and because of a spark of magic it becomes fresh and fun. Jon Turtletaub’s new film, Last Vegas, fits that description. The script by Dan Fogelman doesn’t cover any new territory in any new way. Fogelman did much better with his Crazy, Stupid, Love script a couple of years ago, as did Turtletaub with Cool Runnings, While You Were Sleeping, and Phenomenon  back in the 1990s. The difference maker here is having five Oscar winners working together for the first time and nailing their roles.

In a prelude, we see four friends – Billy, Paddy, Archie and Sam – as 12-year-old hellions in Flatbush. The four friends stick together, though there is one threat to their closeness as Billy and Paddy compete for the attentions of Sophie. Fast forward fifty-some years. The four friends are now scattered. Sam (Kevin Kline) is married to Miriam (Joanna Gleason) and living in a retirement community in Florida. Archie (Morgan Freeman) is living with his son’s family in New Jersey, where they try to protect him from having another stroke. Paddy (Robert DeNiro) married Sophie, who passed away the previous year. Now his young neighbor is trying to match him up with her mother.

Billy (Michael Douglas), a successful agent in Los Angeles, had been a confirmed bachelor. In the course of a eulogy at a friend’s funeral, he proposes to his live-in girlfriend Lisa (Bre Blair) and they decide to get married in Las Vegas. When Billy calls Archie and Sam to give them the news, they suggest they have a bachelor party in Vegas before the wedding. It’s up to Archie and Sam, though, to get Paddy there; the old friends are estranged since Billy bailed on giving the eulogy at Sophie’s funeral the year before.  When they arrive in Vegas, they catch a performance by lounge singer Diana (Mary Steenburgen) that captures their attention, and once again Billy and Paddy may be competing for the same girl.

Much of the plot falls into Vegas fantasy, such as Archie bankrolling their stay by hitting it big at blackjack, Miriam telling Sam to find his spark of joy (and equipping him with a Viagra pill and a condom), and the casino comping the friends to a huge suite. What makes it work is that the actors seem to be having a ball working together. It harkens back another bit of Vegas fantasy – the original Ocean’s Eleven with Sinatra, Martin and the rest of the Rat Pack playing together while making a movie. There is a connection to that earlier time, as when he was a kid Michael Douglas had hung out with the Rat Pack, since his father Kirk was friends with most of them.

One wonderful discovery is Mary Steenburgen as a singer. The actress hadn’t really sung in decades when she took the role of Diana, but she worked with a vocal coach to prepare for the scenes where she’s performing. She does it beautifully, and it’s perfectly understandable how Paddy and Billy could both fall for Diana. The audience falls for her as well.

There’s no deep life message here, other than that every day above ground is another chance to find happiness. Some of the humor is a little crass, but overall it delivers laugh-out-loud fun, as well as an on-screen clinic in acting.

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