Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Review of Last Night (Tadjedin, 2010)

Last Night
Directed by Massy Tadjedin
Starring: Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Eva Mendes, Guillaume Canet
Grade: C

Written for In Review Online:

While Mike Nichols’ “Closer” asserted that the heart was ‘a fist wrapped in blood’ first-time director Massy Tadjedin’s “Last Night” offers up a more tender impression of cosmopolitan infidelity. The values of the high-class city dwellers in this New York-set relationship drama aren’t quite as brazenly hypocritical as their London counterparts, but the themes remain the same. Things aren’t all Sauvignon and smiles in the Big Apple: when the world is right at your doorstep it’s easy to wonder if there are tastier morsels to devour, or if the right one somehow got away.

Keira Knightley as Joanna entertains that very idea when her businessman husband Michael (Worthington) has his head turned by a confident colleague. Once Michael makes off on a nightcap-laden business trip with the object of his wife’s scorn, both marriages are tested. Joanna bumps into dashing old flame Alex (Canet), whose French charms come out to play when he invites her to a friend’s party, thus instigating flashes of flirtation, pangs of regret, and reminiscence about what might have been had their fling not fizzled to a fickle close.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that the film is going to be a more tempestuous affair when minutes-in there’s a jealous row between the pretty pair. Knightley, drunk and acid-tongued in her sarcastic version of envy, flaunts the attempts of her character to rile the placid immovability of her other half, and his insistence upon viewing workmate Laura (Mendes) as just that: another suited member of the office. Where Nichols might have probed Joanna’s frustration with cries of “You want to fuck her – don’t you?” Tadjedin opts for the other extreme and fills the room with chilly, dead air. The couple stare at the empty space between them as, presumably, a method of telegraphing their devolved lack of communication, but what’s exposed instead is the hollowness of their on-screen relationship.

Through lack of scriptural substance and chemistry, “Last Night” doesn’t generate a strong enough sense of how Joanna and Michael fit together, and therefore builds a weak platform for its ideas about romantic disconnection. The deluge of personal one-to-one exchanges make the project feel born of the stage, but as an exercise in acting much of it feels superficially and consciously constructed. This is especially true of the scenes between Worthington and Mendes, which oscillate between genial banter and limp displays of longing, as he in particular suffers under the weight of having to add layers to an attraction that doesn’t have many. By contrast, Knightley’s and Canet’s scenes together gather more flickers of emotion and backstory, and their undeniable candour at least partly atones for the turgid foreplay of the other pairing. Knightley, much more effective in this environment, is the only one of the foursome who really finds a footing within the script. Her playful nature has always been her prize asset, and she utilises it here to colour Joanna’s attachment to Alex as neither exclusive in its genuine re-kindling of feeling, nor as an impulsively selfish revenge tactic. Her awareness and expansion of the character is the single finest element “Last Night” has to offer.

Throughout the muted drama Tadjedin mediates the level of infidelity to deter us from taking a particular side, but in the process limits the level of involvement we can have with either half. The director’s desire to eventually lead us to a tentative but neat conclusion is exposed too early, and the mirroring story strands feel awfully subdued, to the extent that it's nearly impossible to become immersed in what little drama there is. In its glacially-presented platitudes of what constitutes losing touch with a partner, “Last Night” asserts that sex is a restless necessity, and charts moral descension as a uniformly dull and inevitable reality. Even if sex is bound to happen, one thing it shouldn’t be is boring. As the cinematic equivalent of a cocktease, “Last Night” is the least potent attempt to stoke the embers since Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck got steamy in “Gigli.”

The use of familiar techniques to illicit and address temptation leaves “Last Night” open to interrogation; what – if anything – new is it telling us about how we deal with trust and guilt in relationships, and what value we put on monogamy? It’s uncertain whether the film’s course of events is intended as an affirming wake-up call for its participants, or a grim overview of how one can settle for a lifestyle because it feels like the correct option. If an answer lies in the final shot of Knightley, mouth agape in searching for a response to her other half’s mundane enquiry, it’s as ambiguous an ending as one could’ve hoped for. The deliberate lack of finality feels somehow fitting of a film that has as paltry a level of conviction as “Last Night” does, and even less of an idea of how to ruminate about love and sex without shying away from the nitty-gritty.

Like many domestic dramas there’s a strong sense of “Singletons, beware!” in “Last Night,” and its quabbling quartet – as well as the wallowing solitude of spouses entrenched in the routine of married life. While Tadjedin’s film goes with the grain in detailing coupledom, it mainly depicts it as a dull melange of “I love you”/”I love you not” insinuations, which bear little context as it can’t flesh out its romantic proponents nearly enough. This is a riff on relationship crises, but the meagre, minimal dialogue and cautious bouts of disruption make “Last Night” a tedious affair, not without an improvisational sense of quality but ultimately a wan, anaemic commentary based on an eminently proverbial topic.

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