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MOVIE REVIEW : Rehashing the '92 Race for President

September 10, 1993|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the provocative "The Last Party" (at selected theaters) actor Robert Downey Jr. introduces himself as a member of the generation born during Vietnam and matured (hopefully) by the time of the Gulf War. He gives us the impression that he partied away the '80s but is wide awake and asking questions in the '90s. And what better way to get involved than by documenting the 1992 presidential campaign?

At first the film threatens to be much more about Downey, who was nominated for an Oscar for his remarkable portrayal of Charlie Chaplin, than the state of America during a critical election year, but he and directors Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin (who is also the film's lively cinematographer) are just letting us get to know him. Downey can be flip and abrasive but also sharp and thoughtful. He can be a showoff--the man is an actor, after all--but when it comes to asking questions he's an out-front, in-your-face interrogator.

What's most important is that he asks questions of just about everyone he can get to give him the time of day. He questions the homeless and the unemployed as well as the famous and powerful. He gets sensible observations from actor Sean Penn on the importance of participating in the political process and from actress Mary Stuart Masterson on her abortion-rights stand. He doesn't cover the conventions in the usual sense but instead zeros in on participants and spectators.

At one point barred from the Republican convention in Houston, Downey finds out what's going on in the city. He talks to a black man in a ghetto who warns him that if African-Americans can't live in "fancy houses" then whites won't be able to either; in the prosperous-looking suburbs he finds a family reduced to living on food stamps because the husband has lost his job. Meanwhile, Oliver North complains to Downey about how Ice T's "Cop Killer" song is endangering the lives of law enforcement officers, and Jerry Falwell assures him that conservatism is a youth movement. At no time does Downey attempt to disguise the fact that his sympathies lie with the Democrats rather than the Republicans.

All told, what Downey discovers is not at all surprising--that people, regardless of political affiliation or religious conviction, believe that America is going downhill but, on a more encouraging note, that minorities are prepared to fight for their rights. Indeed, Downey tells us that the most stirring moments for him were the AIDS demonstrations and rallies he witnessed in both New York and Houston.

Although a worthy effort, "The Last Party" may have a tough time attracting an audience. How many people are prepared to sit still for yet another rehash of the presidential elections, no matter how personal and idiosyncratic its presentation? How many people are that interested in the political awakening of Downey, as fine an actor as he is? "The Last Party" (Times-rated Mature for language, topless dancer nudity) ends with Downey and his father, Robert Downey Sr., the pioneer underground filmmaker, rejoicing in the election of Bill Clinton. You're left to wonder what they think of him today.

'The Last Party'

A Triton Pictures release of a Campaign Films Inc. & the Athena Group Inc. presentation. Directors Mark Benjamin, Marc Levin. Producers Eric Cahan, Donovan Leitch, Josh Richman. Executive producers Samuel D. Waksal, Elliott Kastner. Writers Robert Downey Jr., Leitch, Levin, Richman. Cinematographer Benjamin. Editor Wendey Stanzler. Music supervisor Kramer. Sound Bill Cavanaugh. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.

Times-rated Mature (for language, topless dancer nudity).

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