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Last Night (2011)
Movie Reviews

Last Night (2011)

While far from being an original examination of men and women, engaging dialogue and performances help drive its intriguing premise.

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In the book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, John Gray examined the diametric differences between the sexes, namely they way they communicate, their emotional needs, and their personal values. Last Night, the directorial debut of screenwriter Massy Tadjedin, is about the ways in which the sexes approach infidelity – and true to Gray’s findings, they could not be more different from each other. Men, we’re told, can cheat physically yet remain emotionally attached to their wives or girlfriends. For women, it’s just the opposite; they’re able to resist physical temptations, but when it comes to their emotions, they allow themselves to stray. In both cases, it’s difficult to determine exactly what brings someone to that point. Perhaps a need isn’t being met. Or perhaps it’s an arrogant form of gameplay, of seeing how far one can go without getting caught.

Joanna (Keira Knightley) is a freelance fashion writer and aspiring author. Her husband of three years, Michael (Sam Worthington), is a successful commercial real estate developer. Perhaps they married too young – they met while they were still in college – but they seem happy together, and they live what many would consider an ideal life in an upscale New York City apartment. One night, when they attend an office get-together, Joanna takes notice of Michael’s work colleague, the beautiful Laura (Eva Mendes), who accompanied him on a business trip to Los Angeles. Why hasn’t he mentioned her before? Why does he spend so much time looking at her? Joanna makes her suspicions abundantly clear when they get back home. Michael, as would be expected, adamantly professes his innocence. For all we know, he’s telling the truth. That doesn’t change the fact that he will be traveling with Laura to Philadelphia the following morning.

“You can be happy and still be tempted,” Michael tells Laura as they sit in a bar. Laura, oozing sex out of every pore, seems to take great pleasure in asking him a series of highly personal questions: “Have you ever cheated? Have you thought about it? Do you regret not doing it?” It could be out of curiosity. She has never been the Other Woman, but she has been cheated on; she now finds herself in the company of a man who may give into temptation, and what better way to understand her own situation than by probing the mind of a cheater? Then again, she could be toying with Michael for no reason other than the sheer joy of it; she knows he’s married, but she also knows that he’s attracted to her, and short of a sign hanging around her neck, she gives him the most obvious of signals.

The film intercuts the Philadelphia scenes with those in New York, where Joanna runs into her old flame, a French writer named Alex (Guillaume Canet). Bookishly handsome, with a devilish smile that makes his eyes crinkle, he asks her to have a drink with him. She accepts, and is almost giddy with anticipation. After sharing a few drinks – Joanna looking far prettier than need be for a woman already married – Alex ropes her into a business dinner with a friend and colleague named Truman (Griffin Dunne), a man unapologetically matter-of-fact when it comes to what he observes in relationships. He knows perfectly well what’s going on between Joanna and Alex, but rather than chastise, he passes it off as another example of innate human behavior. Joanna seems both perplexed and fascinated by him, probably because he’s the only one speaking the truth.

Characters like the ones in this film, especially Truman, are essentially expository outlets for writers and directors, a way to tease and state the obvious to audiences. The observational conversations this film thrives on would in real life be highly unlikely. That being said, the dialogue is smart, and the actors convincingly deliver their lines. Many scenes were uncanny in the way they seemed lifted directly from a stage production, where wordplay and emotion is even more important than physical expression. I would not be surprised if this film were someday adapted for the stage; not only would it put a fascinating visual spin on the mechanics of infidelity, it would also allow the actors to revel in their lines.

The final scene is interesting in that it doesn’t resolve itself emotionally. We have reached the end of the story, but we’re left in the dark when it comes to what the character are really thinking and feeling. This isn’t exactly a criticism; although a total narrative conclusion is always a nice thing, it can be very satisfying to analyze what you’ve just seen and make up your own mind. I’m under no illusions that Last Night is completely authentic or even original in its examination of men and women, but the dialogue and performances kept me engaged, and I found the premise intriguing. Credit also to Tadjedin for taking the material seriously; if you see it, you will be amazed at how easily her screenplay could have been lightened up, dumbed down, and released as a dime-a-dozen romantic comedy.

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About the Author: Chris Pandolfi