Writer/director Massy Tadjedin’s Last Night shares its title with Don McKellar’s 1998 Canadian comedy drama about the end of the world. But despite recent biblical (non-) events, the only rapture on offer here is of the adulterous kind – in the beguiling shape of Eva Mendes and Guillaume Canet.
Joanna and Michael Reed (played by Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington) occupy one of those enviably spacious Manhattan lofts seen mainly in Hollywood movies. He’s in real estate; she’s working up to the Great American Novel by writing about fashion. Despite all that square footage, Joanna prefers to do her wardrobe changes in the middle of the kitchen. I think this is cinematic shorthand for telling us that the Reeds are very busy people.
At a lifeless office party, Michael clumsily introduces Joanna to his (not-so) new colleague Laura (Eva Mendes). Shortly afterwards, Joanna spies the pair in an unguarded moment of apparent intimacy and suspects the worst. So have they already acted on their feelings or is Joanna just being paranoid? Later that night, the Reeds get into a full-scale marital spat, before Michael leaves for an overnight trip to Philadelphia. You can probably guess the identity of one of his travelling companions.
Tadjedin, who also wrote The Jacket, wastes no time in establishing the familiar set-up of a marriage that is under threat from both sides. While Michael is off on his boring business trip, Joanna goes out for coffee and bumps into old flame Alex (played by actor/director Guillaume Canet). He’s only in New York for one night, but that’s long enough for Joanna and the audience to realise that his passion has not been diminished by time and distance.
The dramatic, comedic or even erotic possibilities offered by these two pairings could have made for an enjoyable 90 minutes of glossy Hollywood entertainment. Using a structure that cuts back and forth between New York and Philadelphia, Tadjedin shows us how alcohol, fatigue and frustration gradually take their toll on the four main characters. But given the limited scope of the drama, the casting and the script have to be spot on – sadly they’re not here.
The problems are clear from the early spat between Joanna and Michael. As marital meltdowns go, I found it pretty bloodless. I didn’t believe in these two as a couple – either in love or in turmoil – and Michael’s responses to her accusations sounded as though they were being read off an autocue. That’s partly down to the patchy script, but also to awkwardness of the body language and the choreographing of the couple’s movements round their flat.
The gruff Worthington isn’t hampered here by having to produce an American accent, because he’s playing an Australian ex-pat. But his performance is wooden even by the standards of Aussie daytime soaps. In a role that cries out for the effortless charm of a Hugh Jackman, he’s simply unbelievable as the object of anyone’s lust – let alone Mendes’s Laura. So, as this half of the story plays out in Philadelphia, you find yourself not really caring whether they fall into bed or bid each other a chaste good night.
The Manhattan scenes involving Joanna and her Parisian ex-lover are much more successful. In one of those rare moments of cinematic wish fulfilment, I was thinking how much better the French would have done this type of drama, when Canet bursts onto the screen. Looking a bit like Patrick Dempsey’s smiley Gallic cousin, Canet’s Alex brings all the warmth, sex appeal and air of mystery that Worthington’s Michael lacks. His chance meeting in the street with Joanna might be a bit of a coincidence, but you like them as a couple and want to see what happens next.
Joanna and Michael’s night unfolds over dinner with his quick-witted friend Truman (an enjoyable cameo from Griffin Dunne), before moving on to a party and a lengthy dog-sitting session. Discovering how these two met and then went their separate ways reminded me of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset revisiting Jesse and Celine nine years after their one-night stand. But Tadjedin’s script is less inclined to lapse into pseudo-philosophising as it explores the possibilities of reviving this relationship, with all the complications that would ensue. Though Knightley’s cut-glass English accent seems a little jarring here, it’s much less noticeable in her scenes with Canet.
“I didn’t expect that to happen”, says one of the would-be lotharios the morning after the night before. “Not even the second time?” replies his (presumably) satisfied partner. It’s the kind of bedroom exchange that could have graced a Woody Allen movie – back in the days when he was still funny. I did laugh. But I couldn’t help wishing there had been more moments of genuine levity in this tale about missed opportunities and the ties that bind.
Though the dialogue often fails to sparkle there are some neat visual touches that leave their mark on the story. Contrast the almost comic haste with which Joanna dresses for the party at the beginning of the film with her assiduous grooming for drinks with Alex. Then near the end, Laura receives the news that Michael has gone home early, with a mixture of resignation and studied indifference. It’s a telling moment brilliantly played by Mendes, in what is otherwise an underwritten role.
Peter Deming’s cinematography foregrounds the characters rather than any glitzy or iconic New York locations. This is not a film that panders to the Sex and the City obsession with cramming designer labels into every scene. So when Joanna’s shoes do get their big close up at the end of the film, it’s all about where Michael has found them and what that means. Was last night the beginning of the end or just a fleeting moment of temptation?
(Last Night is released in UK cinemas on 3 June.)
Review first published @Sound on Sight