Saturday, February 15, 2014

Thing Called Love: ABOUT LAST NIGHT

As far as romantic dramas go, About Last Night isn’t anything you haven’t seen before. In this case, that turn of phrase is even more accurate than usual. It’s a loose adaptation of the 1986 romantic drama About Last Night…, which was itself a loose adaptation of David Mamet’s play Sexual Perversity in Chicago. So this material is hardly new or fresh. But in this particular version the screenplay is solid and the cast is appealing and it seems almost new and fresh all the same. It starts with a pair of separate but cleverly crosscut conversations. A goofball man (Kevin Hart) and a goofball woman (Regina Hall) explain to their patient best friends (Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant) how they first met each other. We soon discover that each pair is arriving at the same double date. Hart and Hall quickly get drunk and excuse themselves to go hook up, leaving their saner, more sensible friends behind to strike up a tentative romance. What follows traces a familiar narrative arc, but does so with enough pleasing details to remind that the typical romance narrative is familiar because once in a while it can still work.

Leslye Headland’s screenplay smartly uses the basic four characters, two couple structure to build funny juxtapositions into their concurrent romances. Ealy and Bryant, both steady and strong with deep eyes and deeply felt emotions, slowly settle into a cozy cohabitation. They’re both overcoming bad breakups in their distant pasts and discovering the pleasures of a fresh relationship. Meanwhile, over in the subplot, Hart and Hall, both wildly spontaneous and energetically exaggerated in every gesture, start strong and quickly flame out in a spectacularly sloppy break up that almost, but not quite, completely replaces their romantic passion with passionate vitriol. That Hart and Hall are the ones who think they have the best romantic advice for their friends is funny enough. That Ealy and Bryant indulge and even accept that advice is even funnier. It doesn’t grow into farce, but instead settles into a nice, smooth groove.  

What makes the film amiable and appealing is the screenplay’s allowance for gentle rhythms and some fine shading. Everyone here is more likable, sweeter and more realistic than I expected to find. These aren’t mere archetypical characters of the genre. Or rather, they aren’t only archetypical characters of the genre. Sure, these characters exist to a certain extent as broad cogs in the formula that will conspire to bring characters into a loving relationship, plant seeds of doubt and argument, and then break them up only to offer a glimmer of hope in the end. But Headland writes them dialogue that feels plausibly real, flirtatious and sharp in ways pleasing to the ear. They’re frank, sensual, and open without feeling dirty or exploitative. They’re real adults, not overgrown children or arrested adolescents. There’s a welcome sense of reality about them. These are characters who have lives and conversations, have feelings that impact the plot because of who they are, not just because of what the plot requires. 

The screenplay doesn’t pick sides and plays fair by everyone. When a couple grows apart and we have the token look at lives diverging, moving on alone, there’s not a sense that any one of them is any more wronged. It’s remarkably evenhanded and decent, refusing to devolve into reductive gender essentialism. It allows even goofballs to reveal complicated inner lives and different perspectives. (In doing so it allows Kevin Hart to give his best performance, in that it allows him moments that don’t need to be screamed or shrieked.) There’s a good scene in which one man admits to the other he’s jealous of him and then immediately tries to play it off as a joke. Another scene finds the women arguing about living arrangements, one snapping that she can’t put her life on hold just because her friend won’t have someone to complain about boyfriends with. I liked how willing the movie was to let the characters be themselves instead of always rushing off to the next plot point.

I had forgotten how enjoyable it could be watching attractive people fall in and out of love when the ensemble is given a solid foundation to work with. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it’s nice to be reminded how effective formula can be when done well. Director Steve Pink moves things along swiftly, lingering long enough to appreciate his performers and the screenplay, but moving quickly enough so the stiffness of the formula doesn’t set in too badly. It’s a nice, amiable way to pass the time.

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