' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Last Party (1993)

Friday, November 13, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Last Party (1993)

“The Last Party” was released in 1993, before Robert Downey Jr.’s more public travails with drugs, though he has been and is in the movie itself open about his experiences using them as a child and throughout his youth. And though the documentary, directed by Mark Benjamin and Marc Levin, never explicitly states that he has curbed his drug use entirely, there are numerous moments, especially in the company of his father, RDJ Sr., when we get the sense he is presently sober or at least trying to be sober. That makes it strange, then, that “The Last Party” is presented as akin to a madcap kind of Hunter S. Thompson-ish descent into the 1992 Presidential Election since it is never as drug-fueled or as gonzo as a Thompson version of this movie might have been. An early transition from a trip Downey Jr. takes to the movie studio where he filmed 1992’s “Chaplin” to the site of the Democratic National Convention in Manhattan might have suggested politics as entertainment or theatre but this cut comes dressed up in Downey Jr. explaining to the camera how he feels about Chaplin and how the studio where he filmed it has become a kind of of holy place for him and how this experience has inspired him to try and make a difference. Indeed, the opening shot is him asleep, in front of a TV, suggesting “The Last Party” is nothing less than a manifestation of that most dangerous of Twenty-Tens trigger words: woke. 

Granted, there is a distinct irony at play in “The Last Party”, filtering its view of American politics through the lens of celebrity. There is an early scene where Downey Jr. interviews Spike Lee and the film director laments how America leans too hard on celebrities to shepherd them through this landscape. He cites a few celebrities (including Michael Jordan which, in the wake of “The Last Dance”, felt to me like a cosmic, 20-year early rejoinder to notions of whether His Airness had a responsibility to weigh in on politics) and Downey Jr. chimes in with Arnold Schwarzenegger thought he may as well have simply given his own name. And though Downey Jr. interviews plenty of political figures from, as they say, Both Sides of the Aisle, he frequently counters it with another celebrity weighing in, playing right into Lee’s sentiment. I half-wonder if the modern RDJ who espouses some conservative views and glides through the Marvel universe seemingly on the search for an escape hatch, would have sarcastically skewered his own reliance on celebrity. Young RDJ, even though he sometimes seems to be side-eyeing the right wingers, comes across so sincere in his attempts at enlightenment, however, even when he’s cracking jokes about not knowing who Al Gore is, he becomes, dare I say, earnest.

At the same, though, Downey Jr. cannot help but indulge his sense of the spotlight. In a scene with some Wall Street high rollers who literally break into a greed is good chant, doofuses, every one, but doofuses that run the world, the doc diffuses the scene with a cut to RDJ crawling through a fountain for the faux-benefit of all the business analysts and consultants lunching right beside him. Later, he sits in a public place and, stripped to his skivvies, meditates, or acts like he is since he seems to spend most of his meditation time interacting with the crowd, less a search for Zen then performance art. The ensuing conversation he has with a young boy who calls out his artful b.s., however, is real and sweet, evoking the deft line the documentary toes. His parents don’t vote, little kid explains, and he seems sad about it.

This moment, in conjunction with others, like Downey Jr.’s scenes with his father, draw the allegory that Patti Davis, daughter or Ronald Reagan, offers, of America essentially being a dysfunctional family. Wendey Stanzler’s editing, juxtaposing protestors from both the DNC and the RNC throughout, underlines this idea, making it seem as if two opposing factions are just shouting at each other from across the table, over and over, giving face time to so many arguments on so many topics but never coming to any kind of resolution or even real insight aside from I’m Right, You’re Wrong. The argument is the point. In one meta moment, Downey Jr. talks through his own documentary’s thesis out loud, a light bulb virtually going on above his head as he realizes that in the wake of the Cold War the enemy in America shifted from Them to Us. It’s a line you have undoubtedly heard myriad times in the last four years and given that you’re hearing it in a movie from over 25 years ago merely underlines how America’s divisions are not fake news, just old news. 

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