The Last Days of Capitalism begins with a moment of intimacy: impressionistic, soft-focus close-ups of a couple in the bliss of sexual congress, their two bodies become one. Yet in keeping with the title of Adam Mervis’ feature debut, this relationship is also entirely transactional, and doomed to come to an end.
Not that the Man (Mike Faiola) wants it to end. When he gets a phone call – an alarm drawing him back to the reality of his life – he throws the mobile phone from his elevated balcony out into the night and neon below. Even if he is in the luxury suite if a hotel where transience resides, and even if he is in the glitz and artifice of Las Vegas where money is made and lost, he wants this dreamy hiatus to keep going, as he pursues an intense intimacy with someone else that he does not normally have. So he offers the Woman (Sarah Rose Harper), a student and hired sex worker, a lot more money to stay with him over the next few days – and to tell him her real name. He is also himself being economic with the truth, claiming to be a painter when his power to afford a penthouse tells otherwise. Perhaps, if they keep spending enough time in each other’s company, honesty will eventually come, and with it that much coveted intimacy that money just cannot buy.
The paradox here, though, is that the Man keeps trying to pay for it anyway. His every interaction with the Woman is a negotiation – a flashing of cash, and a reduction of everything, including her body and her personhood, to monetary value. Though not without wit, this middle-aged Man comes with a certain sadness, even desperation. His financial privilege may have insulated him from having to worry about the everyday struggles that plague the 99%, but he also knows that all his wealth makes everyone want something from him, and stops them being genuine in his company. This is true of the Woman too, who whenever he is not looking, is trying to work out the combination to the hotel safe from which he keeps getting more wads of money to imburse her. The Man may long for something real, but he is paying for a fantasy, and the Woman knows how to provide what he wants while pursuing her own interests from a much lower rung of the socioeconomic ladder.
Making no secret of its status as an allegory of late-stage capitalism, The Last Days of Capitalism is a single-location, two-handed anti-romance in which Mervis stages the contradictions in an America built on acquisitiveness, exploitation and gross inequality – and ironised renditions of America the Beautiful are included to mark the film’s state-of-the-nation standing. The evolving connection between the Man and the Woman maps out the complexities of supply and demand, profit and loss, patriarchy and class. Refusing to let the Man become a Prince Charming, this plays like a cynical corrective to Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman (1990), exposing its own fairytale elements for the delusions that they are (“You want to play make-believe,” says the Woman, perfectly understanding the scenario, and her rôle in it). The Man has everything – except love, trust and self-worth. His worship of money has left him spiritually empty, and cannot stave off his approaching mortality. Even as he knows that his days, like everyone’s, are numbered, he tries vainly to fool the Woman – and himself too – into believing that he is one of the good guys, somehow deserving of the Eden that he has created on Earth, and of the Heaven beyond (if it even exists).
At the close of this existential game, the cards are put down on the table, and the real names, occupations and family histories of both these players are revealed in full. Yet even as the film brings the superrich into close, confronting dialectic with the sector that serves its needs and desires, Faiola’s character remains a lonely, unloved cypher. For The Last Days Of Capitalism is, to its bitter end, an elegy for the Man.
strap: Adam Mervis’ single-location two-handed anti-romantic drama serves as a bitter elegy for the Man.
© Anton Bitel