In the late 1990s, ensemble, Altman-esque narratives (what Roger Ebert called Hyperlink Films) gained new popularity with the likes of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Traffic, and Syriana. This style was soon adapted into romantic comedies like Love, Actually which lead to Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve. After running out of apostrophized holiday titles to up the pre-awareness factor, the studios moved on to adapting non-narrative books like He’s Just Not That Into You, taking the subject matter of various chapters as the basis of character arcs. From that movie’s success came Think Like a Man. In spite of being based on a book full of terrible, misogynistic advice, the movie was pretty damn good. Now – in addition to a sequel to Man – the commercial demands of pre-awareness, mixed with the popularity of the ‘Hyperlink’ genre have birthed a remake of About Last Night… starring several of the cast members from the aforementioned Steve Harvey adaptation including newly-minted A-lister Kevin Hart.
Hit the jump for my full About Last Night Blu-ray review.
On the surface, Edward Zwick’s 1986 Demi Moore/Rob Lowe vehicle seems like a perfect candidate for the remake treatment. While the film, about two sets of best friends who end up dating and then breaking up and then dating again, met with moderate financial success and decent critical reception, time has not been kind. The plethora of gauzy-lensed musical interludes are nothing short of excruciating in a modern context and, with the exception of a stellar and exceedingly filthy opening monologue delivered by James Belushi, the meant-to-be-frank dialogue seems awful quaint. All the same, the film remains somewhere in the public consciousness thanks largely to the fact that Moore spends about a third of the runtime stark naked. Also, it has very strong original source material that deserves to be re-adapted.
See, before About Last Night was About Last Night… it was a stage play called Sexual Perversity in Chicago, written by David Mamet and directed by Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator).
Sexual Perversity in Chicago is a crackling work by a young and hungry Mamet, exploring the distinctions between sex and intimacy on the tail end of the hippie era. While his signature staccato dialogue wouldn’t come together fully until the following year’s American Buffalo, there is keen insight and incredible, devastating honesty to be found within the text, especially in its final summation of love. I didn’t need to check the Wiki page to remember that one.
So obviously, About Last Night (2014) is a new adaptation of the Mamet play, right? With a writer-cum-director (Steve Pink) behind the camera and a playwright-cum-writer/director (Leslye Headland) putting words on the page, there’s no way they’d choose to ape a second-rate Brat Pack film instead of taking cues from David ‘Fucking’ Mamet. Alas…
About Last Night somehow manages to take every flaw of the previous adaptation and combine them with all of the limitations of a stage adaptation to make a bizarre chimera of ineffective narrative tropes and unbelievable dialogue, all shot with only one or two takes per setup and minimal coverage thanks to an obviously rushed production schedule.
Most obvious amongst the film’s litany of issues is the dialogue and characterization. About Last Night posits itself as a taboo busting R-rated romance that delves into the nitty gritty of what it is to be in love in the modern world. But it’s really, really not. The characters’ dilemmas are pat and their sexual mores seem pulled not from 2014, 1986 or even 1974, but instead maybe 1960. In a world where Sex and the City spawned a pair of summer blockbusters and Girls gets discussed on drive time radio, it’s no longer shocking to hear a woman describe her oral sex technique, no matter how colorful the metaphor. Nor is it illuminating to learn that modelesque men in their late-20s are reluctant to make a commitment. Other than a clever exchange about the politics of sending a call straight to voicemail and a sincerely touching moment about ‘missing the best part’ of a baseball game, everything here is bathos.
Compounding this is the characters’ ever shifting motivations. At first Hart is a fast talking womanizer while Michael Ealy is more thoughtful. Then this switches. Then switches back. Then Regina Hall, who has consistently encouraged her roommate Joy Bryant’s romance for the whole of the runtime, is suddenly pissed. Then Ealy causes a scene while talking to Bryant’s yuppie colleagues, rebuking them for bragging about investments. Then he gets behind the tap at a failing bar and starts handing out top shelf liquor to his buddies. Then he quits his job to save said bar. And so on.
I totally understand why each couple is together, but I have no idea why any of the friends are friends. Rarely have I ever seen a movie where characters give worse advice. I understand intellectually that this is a story about different types of love and how the upswing of the romantic love functions as the break up of the platonic friendships, but these neuroses are never explored or even explained. Everyone just comes off as a jerk.
These awkward gear shifts seem designed as plot twists of a sort, mimicking the way that lovers slowly learn about each other and how communication can break down without either party realizing it until much too late. But since none of the characters are established at the beginning beyond the level of base archetype, when they subvert initial expectations it doesn’t come across as depth, it just comes across as a poorly threaded plot point.
Things go completely off the rails when we find out that Ealy and Bryant, two functioning adults with careers and responsibilities, have decided to move in together after only a few months of courtship, during which they have never once said, “I love you.” I just cannot suspend my disbelief that far. Why would the emotionally distant man ask his girlfriend to move in with him if he wasn’t serious about her? She didn’t ask to move in, he offered. And even though his apartment looks to be in the $5000 a month range, he doesn’t seem to need the money. Why Bryant, a well to do yuppie whom Ealy points out makes far more money than him, even has a roommate to begin with while her beau lives in solo opulence is never broached. Perhaps the women are supposed to be codependent?
The missing setups should occur during the plethora of musical interludes which represent the majority of the connective tissue here. Unfortunately, the montages are often so poorly constructed that they instead disorient the viewer. And the song selection could not have been worse if the filmmakers had been aiming for irony. In the first musical number we should be seeing Hall domesticate Hart while Ealy keeps Bryant at arms length, instead we just see both couples doing things that seem like dates. Virtually identical dates. It’s aggressively bland and quickly turns to white noise. I rewound one interlude three separate times, trying desperately to follow what was happening, but no matter how hard I tried, I was completely tuned out by thirty seconds in.
Things settle down a bit during the second half and the script even weaves in a few clear setups/payoffs, like a pregnancy scare leads to a dog purchase. Ealy is left raising the dog after the break up and, even though he never wanted it, he learns to love the animal. Then, at the climax, it leads him back to Bryant. Though the movie as a whole is subpar, the finale is actually quite good. Almost like it’s from an entirely different and vastly superior version of this movie. The last ten minutes create the appropriate level of cheap champagne bubbles for those looking for date night fare.
Normally, a movie like this would shoot in Toronto to avoid paying union wages while reaping the benefits of tax incentives, but About Last Night actually shot in LA. As a result of this aesthetic choice, the filmmakers had to squeeze the production into far fewer days than they actually needed. A great many scenes appear to have been shot with only one or two takes per camera setup as evidenced by the awkward continuity of passersby in exterior scenes and a few truly jarring jump cuts. Further, there is one scene of Ealy and Hart in a pool that cuts between two identically framed wide shots faster than I have ever seen outside a music video. Without enough time to shoot the dialogue scenes, the montage bits clearly became an afterthought. The whole suffers greatly for this misjudgment.
It does however speak well of the actors that they could shape a workable performance under such constraints. Hall is, as always, a wonderful comedienne, capable of committing fully to the most absurd of situations while remaining emotionally sincere. Bryant is stuck with the straight woman role, but she elevates it and has really great hair. Ealy coasts on his natural charisma, but he’s got a lot of it. And those abs! And all of them do it without ever once playing into the gross minstrelsy that defines so many so-called ‘Urban’ movies.
And of course there is Hart. After a decade of playing the helpful best friend, he has quietly evolved into a bona fide movie star. With Talk Like a Man and its upcoming sequel, Ride Along (and its upcoming sequel), and now About Last Night, it is clear that Hart has a loyal audience. But unlike most breakout comedy stars, he has yet to have a defining character role. Rather, he has built a name based upon a pair of hugely successful, theatrically released standup films. Because of this, Hart is uniquely positioned within the comedy world. He can do broad silly schtick, or real character based work interchangeably without stepping outside of his brand.
This makes About Last Night pivotal to Hart. With this film, he is trying to position himself as an actual actor, not just a star. The former could make him enough money to last the rest of his life, the latter could turn him into a mogul like his Ride Along costar Ice Cube. (Hart is already moving into producing, with a hot series that just missed the network cut but might find its way to cable.) And just like Cube in Boyz ’N the Hood, Hart rises to the occasion. He’s really good here. Even when the movie drags and drags and drags, the screen lights up whenever he comes on. And his chemistry with Hall could be ‘the beginning of a beautiful relationship.’ Though he only has a few moments of actual emotion, he makes each one sing and feels more fully human than most Rom-Com stars ever manage.
There are almost no special features on this disc. The box lists “An Unromantic Comedy” – a making-of featurette. The other featurettes: “I Love You?” – about the politics of who drops the L-word first; “About Last Night Advice” – about relationship advice; and “Word on the Street” – where random people give even more love life advice.
The first three features are really just one feature. All of these should be packaged as a single Making-Of. They are separated out basically just to fool you into thinking there is more. This is a very obnoxious trick that has become prevalent as DVD releases persist and Blu-Ray struggles to find its footing. When a studio packages 10 minutes of press junket style interviews as a Blu-Ray exclusive, it trains the consumer to distrust ‘Blu-Ray Exclusive’ content and harms the industry as a whole. STOP DOING THIS.
That said, amidst all the rambling platitudes about love, Hart comes through strong. He is honest, open and articulates the core themes of the film more clearly than the actual film. I’ve never, ever seen an actor casually mention his divorce in the middle of a talking head special feature. He worked hard on this and comes off really well in the interviews.
Why is there no commentary track? Just having Hart riff for 100 minutes would have been better than the movie and given the disc some significant added value. Hell, I would have been happy to listen to the guy talk about the craft of acting for the whole of the runtime and give insight into his own tumultuous romantic past. He seemed ready to do so in the talking heads portion. And Steve Pink is a funny guy too. Very often I dread commentary tracks, here I’m disappointed to find there isn’t one.
There is no reason for About Last Night to be this bad. The source material is great, Pink has previously shown himself to be an agile director, Headland is a promising talent with great things ahead of her and the cast is head and shoulders above that seen in the previous film. There is a much better film to be found somewhere in here. But like a summer fling come Labor Day, the the filmmakers let it slip away.
The disc itself is a bare minimum affair. Hart says some interesting things, but otherwise, this is a rental a best. Consider it a one night stand that you might well regret the morning after.
The Film: C-
The DVD: D+