Movie Review: About Last Night
February 20, 2014
With love and lust filling the air this Valentine's weekend, what better way to celebrate than with a fresh and funny romantic comedy that I like to describe as "raunchy likeable vulgarity." Without a doubt the funniest film of the year, Kevin Hart and Regina Hall make you laugh till you cry, or pee your pants, while Michael Ealy just steals your heart. ABOUT LAST NIGHT melds the hysterical outrageous comedy stylings of Hart and Hall with the warmth and tenderness of Ealy and Joy Bryant, all under an umbrella of love and reality written by the incomparable Leslye Headland and directed by the always impressive Steve Pink. It's not often when the stars align so perfectly but when they do, it's comedic magic bathed in a warm glow. And that's what happens with ABOUT LAST NIGHT.
Based on David Mamet's 1974 play, ''Sexual Perversity in Chicago,'' which was then adapted for the big screen in 1986 as "About Last Night" starring Demi Moore and Rob Lowe as 20-somethings looking for love in Chicago, this 21st Century version now focuses on 30-something year old African-American singles in currently hip and historic Downtown Los Angeles. As opined by producer Will Packer, "The original did a good job at taking a look at a slice of life - dating, singles, against that backdrop in that demographic, at that time. I think the timing was right to do that again from a contemporary perspective. What is it like today for young adults who are living and loving and having sex and doing all that they do in a contemporary setting against the backdrop of the internet and texting and sexting and Facebook and Twitter and the like?"
Director Pink expounds on the issue of a remake, noting, "Rather than being concerned with the exact plotting or the exact character arcs, the central question is, 'What are our relationships in this time and in this specific place?'. . . The play was in the 70's so the play itself was really discussing what it was like in the 70's and they remade it into a movie in the 80's. And while they could have made it a period piece, which they didn't, it was about relationships, contemporary life and young people meeting and falling in love, so they were very smart about it. We took that same approach. What is it like now? We took that question and tried to make it as unique and specific as possible. In that way, it's a completely faithful remake but at the same time, it's completely new." And I have to say, I completely agree.
Danny and Debbie are the most unlikely of couples while on the surface appearing perfect for each other. Having been burned badly in the past with bad break-ups, each is now fearful of dating, let alone getting into a "relationship" and thus always seem to be the reluctant wingmen to their respective best friends, Bernie and Joan. Bernie is rude, crude, riotous and raucous and always looking for that one night stand. Joan is cynical to beyond hilarity. After Bernie and Joan meet one night in a bar and decide to try a few dates together, they introduce Danny and Debbie to each other, hoping to give each of the reluctant daters a nudge. Before the night is over, it looks like Cupid's arrow has struck as Danny and Debbie end up in bed, as do Bernie and Joan.
It doesn't take long for each of the hook-ups to become couples, although Danny and Debbie are in denial of any relationship and insist they are merely "hanging out" - that is until Danny gives Debbie a dresser drawer and then a door key. In the meantime, Bernie and Joan are embracing life and each other going a mile a minute with a sex life that is unbelievable and fueled by loud offensive arguments that serves as their own brand of foreplay.
As we watch foibles, fire, fury and frustration in work and at home take all four on the roller coaster ride of life, we are right there with them for every bit of heartache, heartbreak, happiness, hilarity, life change and yes, even a cute puppy. But can they master their emotions and find happiness and the meaning of life for each of them?
Words fail me when it comes to Kevin Hart's hilarious, over-the-top Bernie. His comedic timing, his rapid-fire, non-stop patter and exuberant dialogue delivery is made for Leslye Headland's scripting. He is rapier in his performance but never moreso than when sharing screen time with Regina Hall as each brings out the absolute top level comedic absurdity of every situation and antic, while still maintaining a playful air to edgy material. A stand-out performance among her already impressive body of work, as Joan, this is one of Hall's best. She is as sharp as a tack with her comedic timing and may well be his female counter-part. And there's no holds barred with their on-screen antics. These two are going for their Masters in physical comedy. (Just wait till you see what they do having sex wearing chicken heads.)
While Hart and Hall are the film's hilarious truth, Michael Ealy is its heart. Classy, classic, warm and tender, as Danny he makes you melt. You root for him. You want him to find happiness. Everything about the character shows his good heart. And when Danny's is breaking, thanks to the quietness that Ealy brings to the table, yours breaks, too. Particularly effective is the chemistry between Ealy and Chris MacDonald who plays bar owner Casey. A surrogate father to Danny after the death of Danny's father and Casey's best friend and business partner, MacDonald fuels the emotional core that is essential to the touchstone of hearth and home for Ealy's Danny. He is heaven sent, perfectly filling the bill as the grounding force for Danny and his development and arc. According to Ealy, it was really MacDonald who "flushed out that relationship." Key to the film's structure is also the chemistry between Ealy and Kevin Hart as they are the yin to each other's yang, playing Ealy's calm against Hart's freneticism and vice versa.
For Ealy, the most attractive feature of ABOUT LAST NIGHT and what led him to the project was that "it was less like the '86 film and more of a current adaptation of the play. It was much more edgy, much more funny and less melodramatic than the movie. What really drew me to it was the in-depth nature with which we explored the finite details of a relationship. You didn't have this romanticized take. . . Anybody that's been in a relationship knows, sometimes it's not even your fault [if things fall apart]. It's a serious of things. Sometimes it's just the way that they handle the adversity in their life. I thought was complex and compelling and honestly, one of the smartest things I've read."
Although lacking any real heat with Michael Ealy, Joy Bryant easily supplies some specific traits of Debbie as the careful, cautious, planner happy, mother hen of the group. Bryant perfectly captures and embraces the mistrust in men and relationships while trying to balance business success and find a love life. Women will easily relate to the characterization and performance. But again, there is no real heat or passion between Ealy and Bryant leaving much of their interactions feeling forced.
As comes as no surprise to me, Leslye Headland's script is rapid fire patter filled with truth with hilarity arising from that truth, capturing the honesty of people and relationships - plus the varied nature of the human condition and individuality. Nothing is cookie cutter with ABOUT LAST NIGHT. Tapping into human heart and funny bone, Headland elevates the script, taking initial structure from the Mamet play but then emblazoning it with her spin and that of the reality of dating and relationships in the 21st Century with dialogue being key. As noted by producer Packer, Headland "did such a great job at writing dialogue for everybody. But the women's dialogue, and the way they talk when the guys aren't around, is really real, really authentic and really organic. But, the same with the guys. They way they talk, each couple when the other isn't around. . .I love the fact that there was a great female screenwriter out there who could nail this and it didn't feel soft, it didn't feel like just a 'chick flick'. It felt real."
As I mentioned, ABOUT LAST NIGHT is raunchy likeable vulgarity and there are few who could pull that off both with a script and then with the accompanying execution and tonal bandwidth of the film. Headland and director Steve Pink do so beautifully. As Pink notes, "You can't really have raunchiness and vulgarity unless it's really warm. Unless there's an emotional complexity to all the characters, then you don't want to watch it." Thanks to Headland's skill, "Because it's rooted in real, relatable, emotional stories of these characters, you get away with it. The more you fall in love with the characters, the more you see them as real and the more outrageous and crazy an raunchy they can be. But you really can't have one without the other and Leslye understood that as a writer, which is why sometimes things are incredibly raunchy and sometimes thinks are incredibly emotional and sweet and warm. There's a great warmth to her writing."
With a comedy of this nature, key to its success falls to pacing and editing. For Packer, "the pacing and the rhythm and the talking over each other and the repartee, the bad decisions, the good decisions, the passion, the cursing in-your-face language - all of that is the way that adults relate to each other" and all of that had to be brought to life with the film. Kudos to Steve Pink and his editors Shelly Esterman and Tracey Wadmore-Smith who find that perfect rhythm that makes the film soar. One downfall, however, and while I understand it within the story construct, it nevertheless slows down the film and loses some of the pacing with some drawn out scenes of Danny when he is being consumed by the constraints of life with Debbie and then their ultimate break-up.
I can't rave enough about production designer Jon Gary Steele and cinematographer Michael Barrett. Steele, who easily blended old world style and new world steel and glass in "Burlesque", does so again here. Production design is stylized blending the comfort and warmth of home, hearth and heart through warm dark woods and brick of Casey's Bar and exterior architecture with the stunning hi-tech brick & chrome look of Danny's loft. Adding to the tapestry is the shooting location of Downtown Los Angeles. Making the revitalized area as much a character as any of the actors, the filmmakers have really embraced classic, historic old architectural styling with that of the more hi-tech 21st century look, finding a perfect meld that metaphorically speaks to the depth and texture of relationships and its mirroring of the depth and texture of the city itself. Hand in hand is Barrett's cinematography which is polished, stylized and beautiful with lighting celebrating the warmth of old woods in Casey's while embracing the lightness of the lives of Joan and Bernie. Equally effective is the saturation of color within clubs, capturing shadows and metaphoric half-truths. Framing, while intimate, allows for the personalities of the characters and the scenes. Whereas Danny or Debbie are often more symmetrically framed, Bernie and Joan are often a skew, never balanced or with square edges. Wonderful design and execution.
For Will Packer, ABOUT LAST NIGHT was all about being "real and edgy and not playing it safe. We didn't want to do some Hollywood sanitized typical rom-com. I think that some of the raunchiness or the vulgarity is the reality. These characters relate the way that real people relate."
On this, one of the most relatable relationship weekends of the year, go out and relate to ABOUT LAST NIGHT. Hilarity and heart at their most brilliant!
Directed by Steve Pink
Written by Leslye Headland
Cast: Kevin Hart, Michael Ealy, Regina Hall, Joy Bryant, Chris MacDonald