REVIEW: 'About Last Night' ★★ 1/2

In their 3rd go-round, Mamet's couples are looking for romance, personal growth, a happy ending

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Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips reviews "About Last Night." (Posted on February 13, 2014)

"About Last Night," which is about hookups and relationships and the photogenic allure of the revitalized downtown Los Angeles, comes with a strange pedigree. First in its line was David Mamet's mean, sad, funny 1974 comedy "Sexual Perversity in Chicago," 100 percent Chicago all the way. Mamet saw no hope for his four characters, romantically speaking, and his view of men and women went far beyond Mars and Venus. House plants and rubber bands had a better shot at relating.

In 1986 the widely produced play begat "About Last Night …," — which watered down Mamet's vinegar to suit a young Rob Lowe, a young Demi Moore, a young James Belushi and — the movie's saving grace — Elizabeth Perkins, who really had a handle on the proper throwaway style. (Terrific actress, Perkins.)

Now, without the annoying ellipsis in the title, we have "About Last Night" directed by Steve Pink, adapted from the '86 edition by Leslye Headland but closer in quality to the play.

In its own way it's as raunchy as Mamet's text, which got a lot of attention for its dialogue about the taste of bodily fluids and such. But the new movie's heart belongs to the notion of the happy ending and the belief that we can change, address our personal deficiencies and become better, warmer, more loving folk as long as we have the right partner. Mamet, presumably, is laughing all the way to the bank.

Danny and Bernie are best pals played by Michael Ealy and Kevin Hart. Bernie's the horndog, looking for action, but action with a short shelf life and zero expectations. Danny thinks he's ready for more, which he finds with Debbie, portrayed by Joy Bryant. Debbie's roommate, Joan, is given some real comic juice by Regina Hall, and as the Bernie/Joan narrative develops, the Hart/Hall games of shameless one-upmanship provide "About Last Night" with the energy it sometimes lacks over on narrative track No. 2.

On track 2 it's all about the slow collapse of a model couple making the leap into cohabitation. These scenes, often pretty observant, are never as much fun to play as the wisecracking, can't-believe-she-just-said-that stuff, in any context. "About Last Night" has one problem, a substantial one, it cannot shake: We have been here before. Too often, director Pink ("Hot Tub Time Machine," to name another sensitive relationship picture) and editors Tracey Wadmore-Smith and Shelly Westerman fragment simple dialogue exchanges into frantic, tiny little bits. Why so frenetic? Fast talk somehow seems slower when a film's visual rhythm attempts to outpace the words.

I like a lot of screenwriter Headland's lines, though, and unless my memory's playing me false, they're hers, only partly indebted to Mamet or the first movie. (Dating a model, says Hart's Bernie early on, is like dating "a 10-speed bike with daddy issues."). It's entertaining to watch Hall cut loose and reconnect with a style of broad comedy that, in lesser hands, would come off as pure stridency. Hart's motormouth routine is, by now, familiar. Then again, look how well "Ride Along" did. Ealy and Bryant are smooth operators, easy to like. However uneven, the movie at least knows the cardinal rule: In a rom-com, there's no rom without the com. Hart and Hall give it their all.

mjphillips@tribune.com

"About Last Night" - 2 1/2 stars

MPAA rating: R (for sexual content, language and brief drug use)

Running time: 1:40

Opens: Friday

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