It's a shame there are so few films out that realistically portray male bonding, possibly for fear of assuming an underlying current of latent homosexuality. The oft-neglected theme is pleasantly explored in Last Orders, a journey of three old pals who must bury the fourth of their circle. Unfortunately, while admirable in intent, it also follows several predictable plot patterns that are only saved by the talented cast.
Jack (Michael Caine) has recently died, leaving in his wake a widow, two children, and three close friends. His last wish is that lifelong companions Vic (Tom Courtenay), Lenny (David Hemmings), and Ray (Bob Hoskins) throw him out to sea at the honeymoon spot he shared with wife Amy (Helen Mirren). His son, Vince (Ray Winstone), joins them.
On the long drive out, each reflects and shares various life-changing experiences they had with Jack, which are seen in flashback. Intelligently, writer/director Schepisi chooses distinctive experiences to look back on. These are suavely detailed so that you know what is important to learn from that moment but don't become annoyed with the choices you know are about to occur. For instance, Vince is obviously going to have had difficult issues with his father during adolescence because that's normal. But the familial dynamic between Jack and Vince allows for their interaction to feel spontaneous, even though we've heard these arguments a thousand times in other films.
Unfortunately, like so many movies centered on the British working class, it can be hard to understand characters because the dialect is so heavy. Of course, this adds to the realism of camaraderie, but it defeats the purpose of explaining key emotional growths. You have to rely on facial expressions, and sometimes this doesn't work when certain "secrets" are forced into focus.
The other disadvantage to Last Orders is that the pacing appears solely based on Ray's history with Jack. True, he's not the only one who flashes to past events, but he is in almost every scene, the others thrown in for spice. If the whole film had been just about the friendship between Jack and Ray, this would have sufficed. There's almost no reason to have the others, though they do give fine performances.
This effects the pacing, which can get muddy in the time line a particular flashback. Besides, when there are separate actors for "old" and "young," with the added touch of a toupee for Hoskins, there are no emotional stepping stones to climb in the process of personal exploration provoked by the loss of a loved one.
Last Orders is a rare gem of acting and thematic perception. The cast ably pulls off the affectionate jocularity of a group that has stood many of life's tests together, and the human penchant for fault is easy to relate to. Maybe if some of the more powerful moments were stretched across several sudden realizations instead of being forced to fit a memory box, the plot would have held up to its courageous crew.
Last order: steak, rare.