[19 February 2014]
At first glance, About Last Night looks like a simple, strategic remake: take a movie from the ‘80s, shift the location from Chicago to Los Angeles, allow plenty of room for then-rising, now-risen comedy star Kevin Hart to do his thing, and watch the money roll in, as indeed, it did over the movie’s first weekend at the US box office. But examined more closely, the movie’s path looks more circuitous.
About Last Night shares a title with a 1986 movie starring Rob Lowe and Demi Moore, based loosely on the David Mamet play, Sexual Perversity in Chicago. The credits for the 2014 version cite both the film and the play as a source for the new screenplay, credited to Leslye Headland, a playwright as well as writer and director of the wonderful Bachelorette. The teaming of Headland with director Steve Pink (director of Hot Tub Time Machine and co-writer of John Cusack vehicles High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank) seems primed to produce a certain mix of smartass raunch and geeky comic angst. In other words: white people’s problems, circa the 21st century.
But About Last Night is intriguingly refashioned as a vehicle for a quartet of black actors, many of them veterans of predominantly black ensemble comedies: male leads Michael Ealy and Kevin Hart costarred in Think Like a Man, while Hart and his onscreen partner Regina Hall both appeared in the American version of Death at a Funeral. It’s hard to say whether white filmmakers guiding a heavily black cast represents colorblindness (this funny, accessible movie is no more “for” black audiences than Hot Tub Time Machine is “for” white viewers) or marginalization (surely a number of black directors would’ve loved to take on the work assigned here to Headland and Pink). Either way, it’s part of the movie’s complex hybridization, as it’s sort of a redo, sort of an update, sort of conventional, sort of not.
Still, the plot outlines are conventional. Danny (Ealy) and Bernie (Hart) play best friends and coworkers. As the movie opens, Bernie introduces Danny to Joan (Hall), his latest conquest, and her more reserved roommate Debbie (Joy Bryant). She and the sensitive, breakup-wounded Danny hit it off, and the movie follows their relationship over the course of a year, as the more outwardly volatile Bernie and Joan bicker through their comic relief roles in the background.
The most interesting dynamics in the movie do not lie within the two couples, however, but between them. Bernie and Joan chip away at Danny and Debbie, needling them about showing weakness or committing too soon, and—more importantly—leading by terrible example as they fall in passionate love and then passionate hatred. Danny and Debbie remain above the fray and adorable together, at least for a while. Chinks do form in their relationship, albeit chinks with less explosive effect than those developing between Bernie and Joan.
Some of these problems are naturalistic. Danny’s career stresses, for example, come from a job that seems plausible. rather than a cute movie version of same (no architects or extravagantly well paid magazine editors here). But Ealy and Bryant are so sweet and appealing that some of Danny and Debbie’s conflicts feel manufactured. Those conflicts are slightly lopsided, more attributable to Danny’s vaguely taciturn “maleness” than Debbie’s “girly” expectations of stuff like attention and respect. (No one in the movie, for some reason, bats an eye when all of the men, nice guys and goofballs alike, casually refer to women as “bitches.”)
These plot points could all be standard rom-com material, but the cast and filmmakers invest About Last Night with genuine-seeming feeling and plenty of laughs. Some scenes between Debbie and Joan recall the tartness of Bachelorette, while Hart’s ranting, motor-mouthed persona drives Bernie’s bonding scenes with Danny. Hart guides his other onscreen partner, too; King, a long underused comic actress, screams and wails to match his pace and pitch. They’re often funny together, despite the occasional competitive strain.
About Last Night breaks no comic or romantic ground in depicting male-female relationships. The women still want their partners to show responsibility and the men still want time with their boys. The movie is refreshing, though, in many small ways, including its modest scale, its utter lack of concern over marriage, and a sexual frankness that never turns gimmicky. For a movie seemingly cobbled together from so many disparate elements, it maintains a pleasing balance.