published Thursday, February 13th, 2014

Muted emotions doom ‘About Last Night’

Mick LaSalle
Bernie (Kevin Hart) and Joan (Regina Hall) drink and flirt on their date in “About Last Night.”
Bernie (Kevin Hart) and Joan (Regina Hall) drink and flirt on their date in “About Last Night.”
Photo by Matt Kennedy/Sony Pictures

“About Last Night” is daring and gutless at the same time. It’s daring in that it’s a romantic movie that’s willing to be coarse. It’s gutless in that it refuses to paint any of its characters in a negative light, even temporarily. As a result, the characters’ disputes are muted and the emotions feel manufactured, despite some laughs and four appealing actors in the lead roles.

The movie is based on the 1986 film “About Last Night …” (with Demi Moore and Rob Lowe), which was in turn based on David Mamet’s play “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.” The Mamet influence is barely evident in either movie, except in that there are two couples, one serious, one funny.

Kevin Hart and Regina Hall are the funny couple, who meet and have a one-night stand that turns into an on-again, off-again relationship, filled with huge fights and bacchanalian reconciliations. And Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant play their more serious friends, who meet and gradually head toward something serious: She moves into his apartment, and they’re officially boyfriend and girlfriend.

The test for a relationship is whether it can hold together when things start to go wrong. The same could be said for a romantic movie. If you cast it right, courtship can be a lovely thing to watch, especially with Joy Bryant in the sympathetic role originally played by Demi Moore. Like Moore, Bryant shows us a woman giving everything to a man who doesn’t fully appreciate her, even as she persuades an entire audience to fall in love with her. For Bryant, who has never been given a proper chance to prove herself on the big screen, this is a breakthrough.

But breaking up is the hard part. After getting an audience to invest emotionally in a couple — and believe that two people should be together — the screenplay must wrench them apart, in a way that’s both believable and yet doesn’t undermine our faith in them as a couple. Some movies, bad ones, concoct a misunderstanding; that is, someone mistakenly thinks something that’s not true and won’t listen for an explanation.

“About Last Night” doesn’t make that fatal error, but it makes another one: vagueness. Yes, we get the idea that Danny (Michael Ealy) feels prematurely trapped in domesticity, but we never exactly see why. In the original “About Last Night,” Rob Lowe dumps Demi Moore in a way that borders on cruelty because he wants to see other women. But Ealy’s Danny is too nice a guy for that, so the estrangement doesn’t make sense.

You could say that the 1986 film was about the corruptive influence of the promiscuous bar-scene life, while the new one, albeit with some humor, endorses it as a prelude to a serious relationship. So there’s no critique going on, no point of view, no right and no wrong, no innocent or guilty party — and no dramatic stakes.

Two good things: The screenplay has a nice sense of the ways that couples can descend from snippiness into arguing. And Kevin Hart is an excellent comic actor, very funny but always thinking and feeling, staying open and playing off the other actors. He is well paired with Hall, who matches him for comedy.

Still, what are we to make of a movie showing such blatant disrespect for dinner?

Yes, dinner. In an early scene, Debbie (Bryant) makes a nice meal, and Danny knocks it to the floor so they can have sex on the table. Later, she makes another nice dinner, and they each have one bite before running out to a New Year’s Eve party.

That’s just weird. That’s just not normal. Doesn’t anybody in movies ever get hungry?

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