"Last Orders" is a humorous and human, intelligent and emotional movie about the ups and downs of lifelong friendship and about living long-term with decisions, mistakes and regrets of youth. It's exactly the kind of movie adults are wishing for when they complain nobody makes movies for adults anymore -- and it's a simple but wonderful example of how good grown-up movies can be.
Based on a Booker Prize-winning novel by Graham Swift, half the film stars Bob Hoskins, Tom Courtenay and David Hemmings as three old pub pals on an afternoon's road trip to take a fourth buddy's ashes to the sea at a low-end English resort. The other half takes place in flashbacks that establish the history of this foursome who saw each other through 50 years of workaday trials, including war, love, parenthood, financial woes, marital woes and more.
Michael Caine takes center stage in these flashbacks as the fourth friend who passed away before the film began -- a butcher named Jack who always tried to remain jolly in the face of life's petty and not-so-petty adversities. Married too young due to a pregnancy (in an even further-back flashback) -- but to a girl he absolutely loved (played in her graying years by the wonderful Helen Mirren) -- Jack always kept his chin up, even as his butcher shop struggled and his son Vince grew resentful over family secrets that made him feel like an outsider.
Adult Vince (played by the great gruff Ray Winstone, "Sexy Beast") is a moderately successful car dealership owner with a midlife crisis ponytail and a trashy trophy wife, whose career choice drove a wedge between him and his father. Jack had wanted Vince to follow him into the failing butcher's business. After all, the place was called "Dodds and Son."
There's tension in the film's present, too, where Vince has joined Jack's pals on the road to scatter his ashes.
Writer-director Fred Schepisi ("Roxanne," "The Russia House") structures "Last Orders" with terrific dexterity, using a local pub as a hub for the story (thus the title) and layering scenes from several time periods into a subjectively linear fashion that follows the lives of Jack and his friends from their early 20s through to their late 60s. He seamlessly glides between plot elements as diverse as Lucky (Hoskins) alienating his wife and daughter with his professional gambling, and young Vince having an affair with the daughter of hard-drinking failed boxer Lenny (Hemmings), sending ripples of anger and angst through the tight-knit group.
Every little subplot is an important part of the whole, whether it remains one character's secret or becomes a revelation on the road trip that leads to half-serious fisticuffs between these aged men. They've have known one another so long they can be trading punches one minute and laughing with arms around shoulders the next.
Schepisi does a fine job tying the time periods together, not just by casting fine young actors for the early flashbacks that look amazingly like their elder counterparts, but by capturing perfectly the same spirit within the ebb and flow of the characters' underlying zest for life in all the film's time periods.
But he couldn't have done so without the superb, fully-immersed performances turned in by every single member of the cast, from Courtenay, as an undertaker who brings Jack along in a box for one more drink, to Kelly Reilly, a freckled, flirtatious girl who shows the once-wild side of Mirren's character, all unbuttoned blouses and come-hither looks.
The fact that Reilly and Mirren seem to share the same soul at opposite ends of its happy but tumultuous life is exactly the kind of acting conjunction that makes "Last Orders" so noteworthy.