AppleTV+’s adaptation of the best-seller doesn’t reinvent the wheel but offers consistently strong storytelling.
Hollywood not giving Jennifer Garner the roles she deserves is hardly its biggest sin. That said, it’s fairly disappointing that the powers that be have so rarely found projects worth of the actor in the past 30 years.
The first mistake was too often ignoring how physically gifted a performer she can be. Instead, she’s been sidelined in many disappointing rom-coms and mom roles that tapped neither her violence or physical comedy chops. On the rare occasions her physical talents were tapped, the films often failed to rise to her level. They were too often marred by either poor fight choreography (Elektra) or a mix of misanthropy and racism (Peppermint). As a result, chances to show off her range came few and far between– Alias, 13 Going on 30, Daredevil. (The playground scene works, dammit!). Other works did showcase her acting chops—Juno, Love, Simon, The Adam Project—but kept her a supporting player. And a non-athletic one at that.
Thus, this critic anticipated The Last Thing He Told Me with a specific agenda. While the novel by Laura Dave was not an action film waiting to happen, it could’ve been a Grisham-esque thriller. The sort of mid-90s fare that gave audiences good average folk in over their heads. With no other choice, they had to run hard from their pursuers and occasionally punch them in the mouth. On this score, the new AppleTV+ series is a mixed bag. It doesn’t provide Garner much opportunity to dust her knuckles. It gives her even less cause to show the audience her dexterity firing two guns whilst leaping through the air.
However, what it does, and does well, is keep Garner in motion. Turning wood in her spacious workshop, searching a hotel lobby, running through crowds in Austin to evade danger. It’s all solidly staged, if not especially spectacular. More to the point, seeing a project tap into that aspect of her talent is excellent.
This is also, arguably, the juiciest dramatic plot she’s gotten to work with in some time. Created by Dave and Josh Singer and helmed by an all-woman directing corps led by Olivia Newman, The Last Thing He Told Me finds Hannah Michaels (Garner) living the near-perfect life. Her woodturning business—not woodworking, a recurring joke that gets funnier the more resigned Garner grows with it reminds us—is taking off with a new magazine profile. Her husband, Owen (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, another actor whose talents rarely get fully used), is handsome, smart, and plenty accomplished in his own right. She has a great friend in Jules (Aisha Tyler), a good journalist with an even better journalistic for her romantic partner, Max (Tyner Rushing).
The Last Thing He Told Me gives Garner a range of emotions she hasn’t had the opportunity to explore in some time.
There are only two flies in the ointment. First, her mother abandoned her in her grandfather’s care. As a result, Hannah has spent much of her life slow to open up and even slower to trust. Second, her stepdaughter Bailey (Angourie Rice) would prefer a single-parent household. She doesn’t care how much her dad loves Hannah. She has no interest in her stepmom’s attempts to connect. If anything, she’s harboring an active distaste for her father’s new wife.
Alas, it can’t last. With no warning, the government shuts down the company where Owen works. The charges include defrauding investors by claiming the software he created worked when it did not yet. Worse, Owen disappears at the same time. All he leaves behind is a huge duffel of cash, a note asking Hannah to protect Bailey, and a message assuring Bailey that she knows the real him. With Owen’s boss subtly threatening her, US Marshall Grady (Augusto Aguilera) giving her vague warnings, and the FBI bearing down, Hannah decides she and Bailer will solve the mystery of Owen’s disappearance.
The stepmother-stepdaughter dynamic between Garner and Rice is initially a bit difficult to take. Yes, both performers deliver as the script demands. However, Rice’s Bailey starts off as almost cartoonishly resentful of her seemingly kind and thoughtful stepmom. It feels almost too much. Thankfully, as the story unfolds and their relationship settles into a more complex, ambivalent space. It grows significantly truer to life. Strange that the more far-fetched the plot goes, the more realistic the stepparent-stepchild dynamic becomes, but there it is.
Singer’s fingerprints are all over the plot, which jettisons much of the novel’s flashbacks to Hannah’s earlier life to focus almost entirely on the task ahead of her. The story unfolds methodically but compellingly. As a result, you’ll likely get ahead of the characters and figure out what’s happening with Owen long before Hannah and Bailey do. Viewers who prefer their twists shocking may find that all a bit disappointing. Others who don’t mind feeling ahead of the game will still find the story has enough tension to keep things interesting.
Unfortunately for this critic’s expectations, The Last Thing He Told Me proves short on the kind of action setpieces and b-movie thrills those 90s Grisham adaptations delivered. Still, the series features strong interpersonal dynamics, especially between Garner and Rice. Even better, it gives Garner a range of emotions she hasn’t had the opportunity to explore in some time. Her two-hander with David Morse that acts as the show’s climax is a welcome reminder that while she can play one hell of a mom, there’s still plenty of steeliness at her command.
The Last Thing He Told Me unearths AppleTV+’s secret history on April 14.