Movies Without Pity
<i>About Last Night</i>: Sexual Predictability in Los Angeles

Forget Ice Cube. Based on the evidence provided by About Last Night, Ride Along should have partnered Kevin Hart up with Regina Hall. Where the rapper/actor spent the duration of that hit buddy cop comedy reacting to his co-star with barely concealed disdain, Hall, a veteran of the Scary Movie franchise along with other mid-level comedies, enters this rom-com ready to play. The result is a spirited back-and-forth of verbal volleys that both actors are clearly enjoying as much as the audience. Hollywood's been grooming Hart for some time now to be a big-screen comedy star on the level of Eddie Murphy, but this is the first time he's really been challenged to deliver an actual performance as opposed to acting out an extended stand-up routine and it's a direct result of Hall going head-to-head with him instead of letting him coast.

Well aware that the Hart & Hall combo is the major selling point of About Last Night, the studio distributing the film have placed them front and center in the ad campaign. It's something of a bait and switch, however, because the de facto leads of the picture are Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant who respectively play Danny and Debbie, the single best friends of fledgling couple Bernie (Hart) and Joan (Hall). Dragged along to provide moral support and an easy escape hatch on their pals' second date, they wind up hitting it off and embarking on a whirlwind romance that rapidly progresses from booty calls, to "let's hang out" meet-ups, to honest-to-god dates and, finally, co-habitation. For every step that Danny and Debbie take forwards, however, Bernie and Joan take three or four back until they're the pair of warring exes nobody wants to be around. Except, of course, for those of us in the audience who find their bickering a heck of a lot more entertaining than Debbie and Danny's more predictable drama, which comes to include all the standard rom-com roadblocks, including commitment issues, the reappearance of old flames and bitter arguments that lead them to wonder if they wouldn't be better off just quitting each other.

About Last Night descends from noble lineage, and I'm not talking about the Brat Pack-era original that starred Rob Lowe and Demi Moore as the double D's, while Jim Belushi and Elizabeth Perkins were the battling B & J. I'm referring to the 1974 play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, which both movies are based on and which put a young playwright named David Mamet on the map thank to rat-a-tat-tat profanity-laden dialogue that was both sexually frank and absolutely hilarious. The play's impact is diluted in both screen versions, both because that kind of humor has become increasingly commonplace since 1974 (these days, your average Judd Apatow comedy and pay cable series is just as explicit if not more so) and because the different screenwriters (Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue for the '86 version and Terriers scribe Leslye Headland here) make key changes to the play that softens its harsher edges. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Mamet's play is quite bleak and bitter in its presentation of male/female relationships -- too bitter for the Valentine's Day movie crowd this movie is seeking to appeal to. So even though the two romances depicted here have their turbulent stretches, Headland and director Steve Pink leave little room for doubt that they'll be a happy ending for each pair of lovers.

Still, traces of Mamet's text can still be glimpsed amidst the film's kinder, gentler battle of the sexes and glossy Los Angeles exteriors. (Interestingly, About Last Night is the second remake of an '80s romance to ditch Chicago for another location. The new Endless Love also forsakes the original's Windy City setting for an unspecified Southern town that could simply be called Nicholas Sparskville.) The opening sequence, for example, in which both sets of best friends separately recount the details of Bernie and Joan's first night together, follows the same rhythm and tone as the play's first scene. And until their characters experience convenient change of heart in the final act, for a good chunk of the film, Hart's Bernie is the same kind of selfish playboy that his stage counterpart was, while Hall's Joan channels the barely restrained fury of her predecessor. It's a kick to watch these two attack their parts -- and each other -- with such demented glee. (Pity poor Ealy and Bryant, who do the best they can with their too-familiar arc, but can't overcome the fact that it's no fun being the designated boring couple.) About Last Night itself stands little chance of leaving a lasting impression, but it may have gifted us with birth of a new comedy team.




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