A writer-director's debut feature in limited release, the perplexingly titled psychological drama The Last Time is a not-bad bit of David Mamet mimicking that asks star Michael Keaton to reach a place of dramatic complexity that's a little beyond his reach. And what with the perennially cuddly Brendan Fraser going down a usual road for himself, as a grinning naïf descending into disillusioned darkness, the movie gives us two performances that are difficult to watch for different reasons. Regardless, this psychological drama of salesmen on the verge of a nervous breakdown is still a clever and twisty calling card for filmmaker Michael Caleo.

Implacable iceman Ted Riker (Keaton) is responsible for 70 percent of the sales of the metropolitan New York City division of Bineview, a company that sells, in playwriting tradition, some never-specified product with a flashy model number. Ted's assigned to shepherd the new guy, Ohio transplant Jamie Bashant (Fraser), a Midwestern whiz-kid who's come to New York all unicorns and rainbows, happily describing his perfect life with a new house, a beautiful fiancée, and even art classes at night. The cold-blooded and continually cursing Ted bites his head off with a bitter diatribe or two, and as Jamie goes longer and longer in this crucial quarter without making a sale, the younger man begins taking Ted's venomous advice to ever-blackening heart.

Ted, however, begins to have a soft spot for the at-times tearfully desperate Jamie, and begins giving him his own leads and smaller clients, whom Jamie either can't sell to or alienates. It's not all altruism--Ted's begun an affair with Jamie's girl Belisa (a creditable Amber Valetta), who seems mismatched for him. She confides in Ted that she can't be the doting career wife, and it isn't long before they're having sex in her bed right beside the passed-out-drunk Jamie.

The story unfolds well enough, though even a mysterious off-screen photographer snapping away at Ted doesn't generate a lick of suspense. But there's chemistry between Keaton and Valetta, and a sense of a full, occupied world that low-budget movies don't always achieve. The supporting roles are well-cast, with familiar faces like Neal McDonough, William Ragsdale, Alexis Cruz and Second City veteran Michael G. Hagerty as fellow salesmen, giving distinctive performances that don't fall into type. Daniel Stern plays a supervisor who's middle-management jelly, parroting homilies, and Michael Lerner the industry-legend head of a rival company. Keaton's big speech about his feelings is pretty painful, but I'm betting he could have nailed it if there'd been time and money for more takes; given his character, it was an Evel Knievel-level stunt to pull off.

A lot of pieces and performances only make sense in retrospect, and Caleo's off-putting but promising film isn't always convincing. The climax is attenuated and a bit pat, but this is a filmmaker with skill and ideas, and it'll be interesting to see what he does next.