Richard Jenkins is one of this country’s great character actors. The near-hangdog, generally unprepossessing appearance and bearing he cultivates in many of his roles is unimpeachably effective when he’s portraying a kindly, sympathetic Everyman, as in the 2014 mini-series “Olive Kitteridge.” And it’s equally convincing when he’s incarnating a hardheaded organization man in mainstream fare like the 2012 action picture “Jack Reacher,” or getting played for a chump in an idiosyncratic black comedy like 2008’s “Burn After Reading.”
And of course, it’s not just his manner. Jenkins has the skill to make you see how his characters think. Or, in the case of his latest, “The Last Shift,” the first movie he’s carried as a lead actor since his Oscar-nominated work in 2008’s “The Visitor,” how they don’t think.
Jenkins plays Stanley, who works in a small-town Michigan fast-food joint called Oscar’s. We first see him prepare, with substantial pride, a chicken sandwich. He wraps it and adds it to the drive-through order of some high school kids coming from a football game.
He banters with them about the game, and the initial friendliness of the teenagers turns to mild but pointed derision. We can’t say that Stanley shrugs it off, because we can’t be certain it even registered with him.
It’s a shock to learn that for Stanley, this gig isn’t a make-ends-meet side hustle or a post-retirement diversion. He’s been at Oscar’s for nearly 40 years, and his titular last shift is imminent. After that he plans to drive to Florida and join his mother, who seems trapped in a nursing home his brother dispatched her to some years back.
But Stanley takes the work seriously, and when he’s charged with training his replacement, a young Black man named Jevon (Shane Paul McGhie, who’s appealing and almost as crafty an actor as Jenkins), he goes at it with zest. Jevon’s on probation — he defaced a federal monument and insulted his arresting officer — and needs the job, but he also knows what a dead end it is. (His ambition is to write.). Handing Jevon a clear-plastic-bound sheaf of procedures for food prep and such, Stanley says, “I like to refer to this as our Bible.”
“Bible,” Jevon responds. “You come up with that yourself?”
So far, so good, in the mismatched maybe-eventual-buddy-comedy department. But the movie, written and directed by Andrew Cohn, wants a deeper dimension, and in pursuing that, goes wrong. In conversation, Jevon asks about an incident from Stanley’s high school days when a Black student was beaten to death. Stanley bristles. Later, when Stanley himself is mugged and robbed, he blames Jevon by association.
This leads to a plot development that’s startling in its tone deafness, and that buries the subtle work the actors do here. Cohn doesn’t just fail to read the room — he fails to read the last 70 years. It’s clear by the end that he’s reaching for some kind of ambiguity and resolution for Stanley’s character. But what ultimately drops is some distasteful “bigots, especially underclass ones, need understanding too” messaging.
The Last Shift
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. In theaters. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.
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