June 22, 2009

About Last Night...

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



About Last Night...

DRAMA/ROMANCE:

United States, 1986

U.S. Release Date:

1986-07-02

Running Length:

1:53

MPAA Classification:

R (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

1.85:1

Cast:

Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, James Belushi, Elizabeth Perkins

Director:

Edward Zwick

Screenplay:

Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue, based on the play "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" by David Mamet

Cinematography:

Andrew Dintenfass

Music:

Miles Goodman

U.S. Distributor:

TriStar Pictures

Subtitles:

none


A marriage between the creative talents of David Mamet and Edward Zwick might seem to be an unlikely union but, in the case of 1986 feature About Last Night..., it is surprisingly effective. Zwick, best known for the emotional resonance he brings to his screen endeavors, is almost the tonal antithesis of Mamet, whose writing is often unsparing. This was Zwick's feature directorial debut (he had a few TV credits on his resume at the time) and it was the first of Mamet's stage shows to be adapted. At the time, playwright was arguably better-known in Hollywood than Zwick - he had written screenplays for movies starring Jack Nicholson (The Postman Always Rings Twice) and Paul Newman (The Verdict). Nevertheless, he was not involved in the scripting process of About Last Night... That was left to Tim Kazurinsky, Denise DeClue, and Zwick.

Love is easy. Relationships are hard. This simple truth, which nearly every seasoned adult understands first-hand, forms the production's framework. In general, Hollywood doesn't like extending the story beyond the point at which the male and female leads confess their love for one another. Usually, that moment is the cue for the end credits to start. Movies sell fantasy, and the most popular fantasy in romance is the happy ending. Although About Last Night... ultimately concludes on a hopeful note, it doesn't stop at the end of the romance's first act. Instead, it moves beyond that point, chronicling the ups and downs of a post-honeymoon stage relationship - one that ends not with a wedding ring and children, but with heartbreak. Very little that happens in About Last Night… is unexpected, but that's a good thing. The emotional honesty at the film's core demands that it touch on universally familiar experiences. The banality of what happens between the central characters is what makes this movie feel less like a soap opera and more like the page from someone's diary.

For Chicagoans Danny (Rob Lowe) and Debbie (Demi Moore), it's love - or at least attraction - at first sight. They meet at a softball game and end up having a one-night stand. Ultimately, however, one night isn't enough, and it isn't long before Danny's womanizing best friend, Bernie (James Belushi), and Debbie's roommate, Joan (Elizabeth Perkins), are feeling neglected. Then, with little premeditation and less consideration, Danny and Debbie decide to move in together. Bernie and Joan are aghast, but nothing they say dissuades the happy couple. But the concept of "living together" is a far different thing from the reality, as they quickly discover. The transition from friends and lovers to a couple is filled with deadfalls, and Danny and Debbie fall prey to more than one. Despite the undeniable highs of the arrangement, it soon becomes apparent that the mushrooming difficulties are threatening to choke out the happiness and optimism that brought them together in the first place.

The strength of About Last Night... is its perceptiveness. The film tracks the relationship with uncanny precision: the heady, lust-filled early days; the precipitous decision to leap headfirst into the next step without proper thought; and the slow erosion as the foundation begins to crumble. No long-term relationship survives and thrives without a profound commitment on the parts of both members of the couple; in this film, neither Danny nor Debbie is emotionally secure enough to make that commitment. Their relationship fails not because they are incompatible (indeed, their love is genuine), but because they are immature and not yet comfortable enough in their own skins to be able to merge their lives.

Bernie and Joan are the devils that sit on their shoulders and whisper nasty things into their ears. It isn't that these two see the danger inherent in Danny and Debbie rash decision. Rather, they are against the match for selfish reasons. Neither wants to lose their best single friend. There's also the familiar element of jealousy that some unattached people feel when "one of their own" finds someone else. Yet, although Bernie and Joan represent corrosive elements, their interference only hastens the demise of a relationship that could not have stood the test of time.

The ending is something of a cheat. It's the only part of the movie that doesn't ring true, a reminder that "downbeat" doesn't play well at the multiplex. About Last Night... should have closed on a somber note, with Danny and Debbie moving forward with their lives separately, the way it happens with most couples that split. Instead, because this is a movie and it's still selling a form of fantasy, we are left to believe there will be a happy ending for these two after all. Having emerged through the furnace of failure, they are now ready for success.

Most of the time, when David Mamet is involved on any level in the writing of a movie, even if someone else is adapting his play, the snap of the dialogue is unmistakable. About Last Night... is a rare exception. The only time it's possible to truly "hear" Mamet is during the opening sequence, in which Bernie tells Danny about a bizarre sexual tryst. ("Was she a pro?") For the rest of the movie, Mamet's words have been softened and shaped in such a manner that the distinctive aspect of his voice is dulled.

For the most part, Zwick's efforts are workmanlike. This represents a solid proving ground; Glory would never have been as powerful had the director not cut his teeth here. The most evident flaw in Zwick's approach is his decision to use not one or two but four musical montages. A narrative shortcut set to a pop song, the montage is often employed in romantic comedies and dramas, but Zwick's overuse of it cheapens the dramatic arc. The songs that accompany the montages are forgettable - odd, considering the contributions of well-known performers like Sheena Easton, John Waite, and Bob Seger.

As Danny, bad boy Rob Lowe is cast against type as a guy with a good heart who's insecure around women. In 1986, Lowe was at the peak of his popularity and his being cast in the film virtually assured that it would achieve some degree of box office success. His co-star is Demi Moore who, despite having appeared opposite Lowe a year earlier in St. Elmo's Fire, was considerably less known. At the time, Moore was several years away from becoming a major star (that happened in 1990 with Ghost) and was arguably better known for her stint on General Hospital than for her small body of movie titles. She and Lowe inhabit their characters fully - they are believable and likeable. Their passion rings true, the sex scenes are erotic, and there's real pain in their escalating arguments. (Moore, incidentally, is on record as having been uncomfortable with the nudity. Her attitude obviously changed over the next decade - in 1996, she had no qualms about baring all for Striptease.) James Belushi, who appeared in the stage version of the play, is a force of nature as Bernie, providing sufficient humor to counterbalance the overall seriousness of the material. Elizabeth Perkins, making her debut, is the weakest of the principals, but that's more the fault of the writing than an indictment of her performance. On the supporting side, the script is less concerned with Joan than it is with Bernie.

For its release, About Last Night... received a title change. Originally, it was supposed to bear the moniker of its source play, "Sexual Perversity in Chicago," but TriStar chickened out when there were rumors that the phrase "sexual perversity" might impact newspaper advertising. The new name was vanilla enough to ensure there were no advertising boycotts, and the film proved to be lucrative. It performed extraordinarily well for an R-rated movie, due in part to Lowe's participation and in part because of strong word-of-mouth. The only area in which the movie underperformed was its ability to sell soundtracks. It is therefore somewhat ironic that the only award captured by the film was a BMI Music Award for composer Miles Goodman.

More than two decades after its release, About Last Night... is more of a curiosity than a classic. It stands up well enough to be worth watching but not well enough to demand being sought out. In some ways, it's more interesting as a retrospective of the attitudes and social climate of the era, and as a look at the early days of men and women with long, fruitful careers ahead of them. The core of honesty that distinguishes the production remains unchanged by time, ensuring that, no matter how many years have passed, About Last Night... still works on an emotional level.

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