A film review by Craig J. Koban July 8, 2011

LAST NIGHT j
j
½ 

2011, R, 93 mins.

 

Sam Worthington:  Michael / Kiera Knightley: Joanna / Eva Medes: Laura / Guillaume Canet: Alex

 

Written and directed by Massy Tadjedin 

Massy Tadjedin’s LAST NIGHT – her directorial debut – is more about the act of teasing audiences than dramatically enrapturing them.  

This creates an odd disconnect in the sense that the individual performances are so nicely textured and exemplarily underplayed and the direction itself is refreshingly spare, but they are struggling in tandem to overcome a script that’s not quite sure what its aims are or what it’s trying to really say.  The film works well when its honing in on the very nature of what precisely constitutes marital infidelity and certainly maintains a will-they or won’t-they tension in telling parallel stories of a husband and wife exploring the possibilities of affairs.  Yet, beyond that, the film never truly develops much conflict, tension, or genuine interest 

Tadjedin – an Iranian-American Harvard grad that previously wrote the script to the very intriguing and engaging sci-fi drama, THE JACKET – opens the film with an introductory scene of great observational focus:  We meet a wealthy and, by superficial accounts, happily married couple, Joanna (Kiera Knightley) and Michael (Sam Worthington) that have been married for a few years.  He is a higher up in the commercial real estate business and she is an aspiring writer and they live in one of those posh New York apartments that most yuppies only aspire to.  They apparently have everything…except a level of trust.

This is highlighted at a cocktail party the pair attend for Michael’s office, which Tadjedin shoots with a sort of leisurely eye for subtle detail.  Everything seems to be going as planned until Joanna glimpses Michael out on the balcony with a gorgeous co-worker, Laura (the always easy-on-the-eyes Eva Mendes) and she catches them exchanging what she perceives as less-than platonic touches.  Michael, of course, thinks nothing of his encounter with Laura, but he quickly deduces during the cab ride home that Joanna is subverting some anger and resentment towards him.  This spills over into the film’s best scene as she slyly tries to milk out a confession of guilt for…well…something that she thinks he’s done, but that he thinks he has not done.  The scene highlights a universal truth about men and woman: wives think that their spouses speak the same language, per se, as them, but they don’t.  Even when he later apologizes to her, it’s more out of a willingness to just move on.  When she rightfully asks him why he’s sorry, he pitifully replies, “I’m not sure.” 

Things don’t get any better for the troubled couple, despite the fact that they nonchalantly make up the next morning.  He heads off on a business trip with a colleague and, yup, the source of all of Joanna’s anger, Laura.  Joanna is left home alone to work on her book, but she has a chance encounter with a proverbial old love from her past that “got away”, Alex (Guillaume Canut) and her breath is nearly taken from her when they locks eyes on the city streets.  To her, Alex represents something she could have had, but chose not to; she has certainly moved on in life, but his polite invite to dinner (he’s only in town one night) is hard for her to resist (perhaps she also has a hard time resisting a handsome man with a sinful French accent).  She agrees to meet him and the film from this point on intercuts between two cities and two sets of couples, Joanna and Alex and Michael and Laura, as it invites us in to play a wicked guessing game of who will give into temptation first. 

On a cursory look, LAST NIGHT is kind of like EYES WIDE SHUT in the way it presents a Manhattan couple of money and privilege and how they both become increasingly paranoid of the other’s potential brushes with unfaithfulness.   Even though Tadjedin’s film clearly lacks the grandiose, theatrical swagger of Kubrick’s film, it still does a decent job of presenting a story about two conflicted people that mightily grapple with trust issues while facing limitlessly attractive alternatives.  LAST NIGHT understands how the quick and fleeting sensation of the newness that another man or woman poses in a married person’s life can oftentimes be a destabilizing agent.    The film also quietly ruminates on the very meaning of adultery: does cheating have to involve just sex?  Not only that, but Tadjedin’s portrait of Joanna and Michael’s marriage is intriguingly convoluted:  they are neither unhappy or happy and neither of them wants to disturb the status quo, even when they are troubled with nagging doubts about each other’s honesty. 

If there is a central dilemma with the film it’s with its ambition.  Beyond the scintillating thrill of it trying to make us guess which respective spouse will cheat on the other first (or whether any affairs will happen at all) LAST NIGHT offers very little in the form of meaning.  There are times when it seems to be struggling with exactly what it’s trying to be about: Is the story concerned with Joanna’s tug-of-war feelings about her Parisian past and the man she once loved, but can’t be with?  Or, is the narrative about how the insecure and uncomfortable Michael is now really worried about being lured in by Laura, seeing as it’s been emphasized to him by his wife that there is perhaps more going on there?   

The characters themselves are, to be fair, kind of hard to really invest in and empathize with.  Joanna and Michael are, for the most part, rather wealthy, privileged, and completely self-absorbed within the hermetically sealed social bubble that they place themselves within.  They seem preoccupied with…well…themselves so much and their own existence that you kind of want to smack some sense into them and force them to look at the world beyond their chic dwelling.  Perhaps the film could have also benefited from some warmth and humor sprinkled in the way that a Woody Allen would have cultivated out of similar material. 

What’s ultimately disagreeable is that LAST NIGHT contains thanklessly moderated and nuanced performances.  Knightley, holder of one of the cinema’s most ravishingly beautiful faces, does a bravura job of capturing Joanna’s insecurities not only with Michael, but with herself as well.  Worthington is surprisingly solid as a deeply uncomfortable-within-his-own-skin husband that has to emotionally wrestle with enticement (he proves here that he can delicately play vulnerable and melancholic roles when not being forced to sport swords and sandals in various action roles).  Eva Mendes more than fulfills her role's requisite level of sultriness and intrigue.  Guillaume Canet perhaps has the trickiest role to pull off just right: he’s not a one-note leach pining to steal Joanna away from Michael.  Rather, he’s more internally tormented by the proposition, which makes his role feel better rounded and credible. 

Tadjedin’s direction, as previously stated, is strong at times for how she uses the most minimal of camera set ups to speak volumes (like how she simplistically films Michael and Joanna apart from one another to evoke their emotional separation and unease).  She gives LAST NIGHT a calm, assured, and leisurely pacing as well that allows us to careful hone in on the characters and their issues.   The film also concludes on a shot of ambiguity as one character is about to say…something...leaving us to think about what was about to mentioned as the end credits interrupt the exchange.  Yet, for as well acted and finely directed as LAST NIGHT is, it remains a somewhat befuddling and banal drama.  The main characters are about the same at the end of the film as they are at the beginning, which leaves the resulting narrative in-between feel undeveloped and lacking purpose.  LAST NIGHT is a great tease of a drama, but just a tease nonetheless.

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