Having sat through my share of film festival entries, I’m almost inclined to give Neil Mandt’s Last Stop for Paul—the feature winner of this year’s Twin Rivers Media Festival—four stars. No, it’s not the best feature-length entry I’ve ever seen from a film festival, but it’s one of the best paced and most enjoyable. What it lacks in polish—and it does lack in polish despite the fact that writer-director Neil Mandt is not a filmmaking newcomer—it tends to make up in high spirits and good humor.
The overall concept is one that could easily have spawned disaster, and it’s amazing it didn’t. The central premise is workable enough for “road comedy” purposes: Two friends, Charlie (Mandt) and Cliff (Marc Carter), go on a two-week, around-the-world trip with plans to scatter the ashes of Cliff’s recently deceased best friend, Paul, along their way to a huge all-night party in Thailand. Mandt, however, courted disaster by working only from an outline and not a prepared script. It’s easy to see where this could have gone wrong, but it mostly works—probably because the film is content to be lively and likeable (nothing about the movie is mean-spirited) and is as much a character study (even if the characters aren’t all that deep) as anything else.
Had it gone for big laughs, it would probably have become unwatchable. It’s also smart enough not to let itself become too predictable. There’s a built-in gag—that somewhere along the way the guys are going to be found out by the hotels they’re scamming for free rooms that they’re not really hotel critics for the Frommer guides—that blessedly never materializes, and wisely is replaced by a much better and more surprising similar gag. Mandt keeps the film moving and pulls it together with shrewd editing and voice-over storytelling. This last sometimes recalls Kip Pardue’s breathless recounting of his European trip in Roger Avary’s The Rules of Attraction (2002), but in a different key. Great? No, but it has the kind of freshness, verve and stylistic panache that ought to make it essential viewing for anyone thinking of making a film. Would-be filmmakers take note.