New Netflix Adaptation of Joan Didion’s ‘The Last Thing He Wanted’ Earns Dismal Rotten Tomatoes Score

Netflix’s newest original movie has an acclaimed director at its helm, an Oscar-winning actress in the lead role, and a script based on a novel by one of America’s most-praised living authors. It also has a dismal Rotten Tomatoes score of just 7% after 30 reviews. So what went wrong with The Last Thing He Wanted

‘The Last Thing He Wanted’ is based on a book by Joan Didion

Anne Hathaway holding a camera
Anne Hathaway in The Last Thing He Wanted | Laura T Magruder

The Last Thing He Wanted is based on a 1996 novel by Joan Didion, who’s also written novels such as Play It As It Lays and The Book of Common Prayer and the bestselling memoir The Year of Magical Thinking

The story focuses on a journalist named Elena McMahon (played by Anne Hathaway in the movie) who is covering the 1984 presidential election. Her dying father is a shady arms dealer, and Elena gets caught up in his business moving weapons from Central America to Florida. She also starts an affair with a U.S. government official involved in manipulating situations abroad. It’s a tense political thriller that looks critically at America’s role in the international affairs — in this case, its interference in Nicaragua, which let to the Iran-Contra scandal. 

Critics say ‘The Last Thing He Wanted’ doesn’t make any sense 

On the page, Didion uses her trademark elliptical style to weave a story of intrigue and deception. But for whatever reason, the story, which was adapted by director Dee Rees (Mudbound) along with Marco Villalobos, didn’t translate well to film, at least according to critics. 

“Incoherence courses through this Netflix Original,” said Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, adding, “In the novel, Didion mercilessly exposed the hollow core of American democracy. On film, The Last Thing He Wanted settles for just being hollow.”

Nick Allen at RogerEbert.com called the movie “incomprehensible to an almost impressive degree.”

In addition to a confusing plot, critics slammed the film’s direction. The Last Thing He Wanted “looks less like controlled discombobulation and more like messy, disorganized prestige TV, directed without a plan … Rees’ indifference to consistencies of perspective and matters of visual pacing is more or less disastrous,” wrote Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club

There were a few positive reviews 

Most critics had a negative reaction to the film, which also stars Ben Affleck and Willem Dafoe. But there were a handful of positive reviews. Gary Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times admitted the narrative was “cluttered” but said the film was “a tense, absorbing tale of an innocent woman upended by the worst kind of political duplicity.” Jason Bailey of The Playlist said there was “much to admire” in the movie and singled out Hathaway’s performance for particular praise. 

The Last Thing He Wanted may not have been a hit with the critics, but if you’re interested in learning more about the book’s author, check out Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. This doc directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne earned a much more respectable 89% on Rotten Tomatoes and is currently streaming on Netflix.

The Last Thing He Wanted is streaming on Netflix from Feb. 21.  

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