Early on in Sunset Boulevard, in one of that film's few throwaway scenes, screenwriter William Holden frantically tap-dances out an original story premise for preoccupied producer Fred Clark-a baseball yarn that would star Alan Ladd, with William Demarest prominently on the sidelines as the gruff but gold-hearted coach-such a do-able idea the miracle was that Paramount didn't take him up on it and greenlight the project on the spot.

Plausible premises like that bounce dizzily all over the place in The Last Shot. Just go to any street corner, advises Joan Cusack, a brassy, been-around-the-block-a-few-times agent. This is Hollywood, she tells a stranger-in-a-strange-land (novice producer Alec Baldwin, who, in truth, is an FBI agent trying to set up a bogus production that will catch John Gotti's estranged second cousin red-handed in some Teamster-Mafia hanky-panky).

The Last Shot, despite its double-edged connotation, is not the best title for this frequently hilarious enterprise, but The Sting was already taken, and I Was a Filmmaker for the FBI seemed a tad silly-as did Getting Gotti's Goat. Arguably, the best handle was the one that the producers left behind on the original 1996 Details magazine article that reported how just such a fanciful ruse played out in real life: What's Wrong With This Picture?

Cusack's raunchy rant not only sets the abrasive tone for things to come, it is probably the funniest uncredited cameo since Martin Short played the coked-out agent in The Big Picture, a similar you-can't-win-in-Hollywood saga. The Last Shot is not savage satire, in the unremitting league of The Player or Wag the Dog, but it comes out swinging wildly and, more often than not, connects with some solid belly-laughs before the piper is paid.

Debuting director Jeff Nathanson, working from his own zinger-strewn script, makes a shift in gears heading into the homestretch, acknowledging the humanity of his characters and their dreams which got away from them (or, worse, which were never there, but only happening in their hearts and heads). There's a sweet sadness in all this last-reel debris.

True to Cusack's pronouncement, Baldwin's Joe Devine has no trouble singling out the perfect patsy among the sidewalk Scheherazades constantly spieling their movie plots to anyone who will listen. Enter Steven Schats (Matthew Broderick), who tears tickets at a movie theatre in real life but harbors his own eminently accessible fantasy of making a movie about his late sister searching the American Southwest for answers among the Hopi Indians. He calls his script Arizona, and Joe not only wants to produce it, he wants Steven to direct it.

Of course, there's a catch: The movie must be made at the site of the FBI sting, which unfortunately is Providence, Rhode Island, and that, in turn, means that the second-largest landfill in New England will be pawned off as the Grand Canyon. But the scent of finally realized cinema lulls Steven into submission, and even seasoned law-enforcement officers prove susceptible. One guy on the surveillance team goes out for, and gets, the cinematographer job. And some of the suits give notes on the script. Everybody kind of gets into the act, and the raison d''tre of the operation fades away beyond the reality checks.

Broderick and Baldwin occupy the center ring quite entertainingly, but there's a lot of hysterically funny upstaging from the sidelines. Tony Shalhoub is terrific as the object of all this deception, a lowlife shunned by his criminal relatives because of his complexion: He is a burning-bed survivor. "Six months later," he says, "the marriage fell apart." Then there's Toni Colette, having a dandy time as the ding-a-ling diva tapped to star in this bogus opus, a has-been hobbling back from B-movies and rehab. (She blithely presents a urine specimen at her first interview to prove how clean she is.) Another unhinged actress is offered by Calista Flockhart, playing Broderick's live-in girlfriend for fireworks effect. Less effective-because the writing lets them down-are Tim Blake Nelson and Ray Liotta as the rivaling brothers of Broderick and Baldwin. Their backstories never quite jell.

-Harry Haun