[14 February 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s so obvious as to be painfully so, but so creative it borders on the brilliant. When someone suggested to director Steve Pink and playwright turned screen scribe Leslye Headland that David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago should be tackled once again, the duo had a decision to make. The first dilemma was how to take on the material without undermining its power unlike the first attempted adaptation, 1986’s About Last Night…. While many still like that Jim Belushi/ Elizabeth Perkins/ Rob Lowe/ Demi Moore look at Reagan-era post-modern relationships and casual sex/commitment issues, others argued that the dreary work of Edward Zwick and his actors did Mamet and his language a disservice.
So imagine the contemporary audience’s surprise when Pink decided to place four well known African American actors in the leads (including funnyman flavor of the moment, Kevin Hart). Better still, instead of channeling the original, Ms. Headland took its essence and filtered it through a thoroughly modern upper class urban L.A. ideal. The result is 2014’s About Last Night (no ellipses), one of the funniest and freshest semi-serious romantic comedies of the past decade. Thanks to the frankness and F-bomb laden dialogue delivered by the cast, we get the feel for what Mamet was driving at (even without being wholly faithful to the play). Three decades of the media examining interpersonal relationships has also fueled a more insightful and intelligent experience.
Our quarreling on-again, off-again couples are Bernie (Hart) and Joan (Regina Hall), Danny (Michael Ealy) and Debbie (Joy Bryant). The guys work as salesmen for a restaurant supply company. The ladies are in the dental (Joan) and advertising (Debbie) industries. One night, while Bernie is trying to help Danny get over the loss of his psycho girlfriend Alison (Paula Patton), they run into these gals. Joan is ready to hook up with our mouth-mouthed fireplug, while Debbie sees something intriguing in his dour, depressed companion. Eventually, both couples find complications in their budding romances. Bernie and Joan are more obsessed with sex than any other kind of intimate affection while Danny feels stifled by Debbie’s plans to domesticate him and his life. Eventually, these pairs fall apart, with all four participants angry and asking “what went wrong?” Then, things start to get real.
Hilarious and heartfelt, About Last Night is a revelation, especially for those of us paid to sit through strained, stupid, sitcom level RomComs over and over and over again. Hollywood’s current hackneyed formula is simple—find a budding starlet, give her an equally untried meet-cute meat partner, place them in a high concept circumstance that would never, ever occur in real life, and add in a healthy dose of stunted slapstick and irritating entendres. Lash it all to an ending so obvious it announces itself from the original casting calls and you’ve got He Said/She Said 101, Tinseltown style. Of course, the end result is about as romantic as a colonoscopy and as funny as said camera up your butt, leading many who adore the genre to wonder if anyone can get it right. Well, here’s the news you need to know - Pink and Headland get it, and they get it expertly. They create a feeling of authenticity here, bringing us characters that are grounded and come across as genuine, passionate, and vulnerable.
Each of the actors provides us with an individual we can identify with and support. Hart’s Bernie is perhaps the most complex, the creator of a series of man-mantras which guarantee that the only kind of love he’ll find is in a swanky bar bathroom or in the bed of another one-nighter. He’s got game, and the wisdom to support it, but we also sense he’s lonely inside. For Hall’s Joan, it’s all about bettering the macho chauvinist at his own pathetic game. Get her drunk and she’s good to go, but there are times in her sober existence where not even a pint of ice cream can heal the lack of commitment wounds. Bryant’s Debbie is perhaps the most cold and calculated of the four, finding everything about Danny to be a challenge. She manipulates him into doing things without the promise of something permanent, and the resulting animosity drives a wedge between them.
As for Ealy’s Danny, there are definitely mixed signals. He wants to do the right thing even when his insane ex shows up and throws herself at him. Yet we can also tell that Debbie is pushing him, making him undertake decisions and changes he is ill-prepared to handle. He wants back in to the life if his buddy Bernie, but after Debbie, there’s no going back. It says something about how effective these characters are that when they are apart, we want them together and when life conspires to throw them for a loop (Danny loses his job), we hope that will land on their feet. It’s rare to find a RomCom these days where a viewer can become so heavily invested but About Last Night is so good at selling these characters that we would be willing to watch several more hours of their emotional (and physical) bump and grind.
This is the dictionary definition of an ensemble with even the ancillary players (Ms. Patton, a family friend/bar owner played by Christopher McDonald) delivering in scene after scene. Thanks to a powerhouse script, all Mr. Pink has to do is set up the camera and let his cast do the shouting. Yes, there is lots of foul language here and more than a few ways to describe (and chide) one’s genitalia, but that’s the point of a film like About Last Night. This is how real people talk. This is how real people relation. This is how real people love and lose love. Sure, it’s a tad hyperstylized and there is a mountain of rapid fire dialogue to climb through, but this is a quality depiction of modern relationships… and even better: race is never a factor. There is never a moment when we view the actors’ ethnicity (and the problematic PC cliches that come with it) as a part of the plot. Instead, Steve Pink hired a group of performers that he thought would best handle Leslye Headland’s hilarious script. In doing so, he made a version of About Last Night that even David Mamet would be proud of.