But then, the fact that The Last Good Time is a strong, unique, character-driven story shouldn't come as much of a surprise; Balaban is the last guy who would make anything cute, sentimental or sweet. The director's long, low-key career includes acting roles in films such as Catch 22, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and City Slickers II. And his first movie as a director was the odd study of suburban cannibalism, Parents. He also did the pilot for the TV series Tales from the Darkside. Calling Balaban quirky would be an understatement.
His characters have their quirks, too. The ordinary person at the center of The Last Good Time is Joseph Kopple (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a retired violinist with silver hair and a well-groomed mustache. In sad scenes that show his dignity, we see that each night he makes an entry in a daybook, using blue ink to list what he will wear the next day and what he needs from the store. Often, he needs tuna, and the clerks at the neighborhood grocer's act as though he may be light-fingered, warning each other to "keep an eye on the old guy's pockets." Kopple, impeccable in a brushed suit and shined shoes, regards the clerks' scrutiny with bitterness.
Truth is, though, that he might well be thinking of nicking a tin of tuna or two. Trouble with the IRS is disturbing his seamless life. For a down payment on back taxes the IRS will take all his savings, and they'll take it right now, please.
But instead of paying the IRS, Kopple takes his money out of the bank and hides it in his room. At this point, our silver-haired hero shifts from being eccentric to being mysterious.
His public life, however, continues as before. Daily, Kopple visits his bedridden friend Howard (Lionel Stander). They sit and talk, Kopple talking mostly about the past, and then mostly about the time his long-dead wife danced nude in front of a fireplace. Howard, who's living in a home and isn't very mobile, begs to hear the story. He's eager to talk about life and sex and what he would do if he could be up and around. Stander makes Howard heartbreaking. This man has lost half his memory, the use of his limbs, and he is never going to get up out of that bed, yet he's got a cocky smile and salacious remarks for the nurse.
Howard isn't the only one who provides a counter to Kopple's withdrawn demeanor. A neighbor, the resolutely cheery Ida Cutler (Maureen Stapleton) is also eager to get out and enjoy life, although problems with her legs make having adventures difficult. Ida has a temper, but not because of her own problems. She's tried to be a friend to Kopple, tried to be included in his daily visits to Howard and tried harder not to show her loneliness. But Kopple, in his solipsism, finally pushes her too far, and she let's him know it, telling him "it's no wonder you're alone. You're a mean son of a bitch." Kopple doesn't react to her anger; he may not know how. Despite being able-bodied, he would just as soon sit and dream about his dead wife all day and all night.
That changes only when a young girl, the battered girlfriend of an upstairs neighbor, shows up on Kopple's doorstep. (This early-20s woman is the movie's only AARP-ineligible main character.) Charlotte Zwicki (Olivia d'Abo) has a certain sweetness about her, but little else. She's obviously a poor judge of men, she has no table manners and has no notion what she might do. So Kopple takes her in, making her a little pallet on the floor, where she sleeps like a stray cat.
Hearing of this from Kopple, Howard urges his friend to take advantage of the situation and then return to recount every detail. He grins like a cartoon bulldog at the prospect, while Kopple is offended by Howard's lewd suggestions. Offended, yes, and a little flattered.
Watching this story unfold, and wondering how each character will react to the latest event, is a joy. Ida is something. So is Howard. They may not get around so good anymore, and Howard, especially, has trouble keeping up with details, but they have grit and heart and all that wonderful stuff that movie heroes use to beat the odds. Ida's soft, gentle smiles, one realizes, are her way of being patient, patient because she's frustrated by her old legs that won't take her everywhere she wants to go. Howard's mischief is purely for fun. Much of the story depends on Ida's smiles and Howard's laughing eyes, and Stapleton and Stander do nothing, not one thing, that looks like acting. They simply become their characters. The fierce old folks' interactions, and the occasional episode with Charlotte, are riveting.
These rich, powerful performances by Mueller-Stahl, Stander and Stapleton are balanced by fine work from former Wonder Years star Olivia d'Abo. She's not simply a cute blond waif charming her way around the movie -- she plays her lost girl with dignity, a quality that The Last Good Time reeks of.
There is no last good time, no final hurrah, in The Last Good Time. This is a movie about people in the last years of their lives, but it's not a film about the end of their lives. When the movie concludes, there's still more to be said, and one leaves wondering exactly what marvelous things might be in store for Howard, Ida and Kopple.
The Last Good Time.
Directed by Bob Balaban. With Armin Mueller-Stahl, Maureen Stapleton, Lionel Stander and Olivia d'Abo.