By Daniel Walber | Spout April 22, 2011 at 3:21AM
The trailer for “Last Night,” to be perfectly honest, makes it look like yet another cliché movie about infidelity and the “will they or won’t they?” tribulations of a wealthy urban couple with few other problems. Thankfully, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Writer/director Massy Tadjedin does a fantastic job of avoiding the tired tropes and overused plot elements of romantic melodrama, and the film manages to stay pretty original throughout. And that particular victory makes the failure of “Last Night” as a whole even more fascinating. While Tadjedin’s plotting stays fresh, the film falls into the unfortunate trap of uneven split narrative.
We saw this same problem recently in “Julie and Julia.” Taking a film and essentially splitting it in half, with two separate storylines that are primarily articulated through a series of editing cuts, can be disastrous if only one of them is interesting. Multi-narrative movies have always had this problem: Amy Adams’ parts of the aforementioned culinary comedy and Richard Gere’s chunks of “I’m Not There” both make you cringe every time you’re ripped from a more edifying scene. In “Last Night,” Keira Knightley and Guillaume Canet are charismatic and intriguing, playing two characters as well written as any other cinematic lovers we’ve seen in recent years. Eva Mendes and Sam Worthington, on the other hand, not only bring very little charisma to their parts, but the roles themselves are ungainly and dull. The contrast is brutal.
Knightley and Worthington are Joanna and Michael Reed, a married couple living in New York who for the most part have had a very stable 5-year marriage. Everything is then thrown into flux on a single weekend, in which Michael goes on a business trip with the beautiful Laura (Mendes), and Joanna’s old flame, Alex (Canet), unexpectedly shows up in town. The vast majority of the film is spent over the course of their time apart, cutting between Michael and Laura baring open their souls in Philadelphia and Joanna and Alex reliving their deeply romantic Parisian affair in Manhattan.
Unfortunately, the potentially powerful emotional rawness of Laura and Michael’s trip to Pennsylvania falls totally flat. It’s not just that the two actors bring surprisingly little emotion to these characters, but the dialogue itself is rather clunky. There are scenes that begin abruptly and bluntly with personal confessions without any effort put into establishing why these two suddenly feel so deeply comfortable around one another. The human candor Tadjedin is clearly trying to show, two people drawn together by physical desire and a frank personal connection, collapses before it even manages to show itself. Even the setting seems haphazard and lazily constructed, a faux-Philadelphia represented by innocuous NYC exteriors, the occasional shot of the Philly skyline, and a mildly unsettling attempt to indicate the city by filling a bar with large working class middle-aged men drinking beer.
Fortunately, Knightley and Canet bring their A-game to the sequences in New York. It’s an equally familiar story, long-lost lovers brought together for a fleeting moment years after the height of their romance, but something about both actors and characters lends their relationship a certain magic. These two creative souls, who interact on screen with a great deal of unspoken yet almost tangible intimacy, bring an extraordinary depth of field to the emotional landscape of the film. You believe the richness of their past but understand the tenuous hold onto each other that they not only feel in the present but which also gave anxiety and excitement to their now-distant liaison. If only the film had focused exclusively on this coupling, Tadjedin and these two talented actors could really have taken advantage of their energy.
Unfortunately, the compelling romance of Joanna and Alex only accentuates the unfortunate contrast between the two storylines and hurts the film overall. And to make matters worse, the majority of the film lacks dynamics of tone, deciding to keep with the same imagery and music to sustain a single mood. There’s an abundance of sad piano, which is never a good thing, and while the photography has moments of inspiration the predominant look falls somewhere between wistfully forlorn and morosely dull. A creative attempt at an amorous balancing act, “Last Night” loses its equilibrium and falls flat on its face.