Last Night (2011)

The possibilities and ramifications of infidelity get a thorough workout in Massey Tadjedin's moody romance Last Night. As both halves of a seemingly unhappy couple spar on the same night with potential affairs, this perfectly fine scenario settles too easily into an underperformed exercise in what-if. The promise of the film that this could have been is continually receding to the horizon the longer it goes on.

A well-attuned Keira Knightley, acquitting herself better than almost anybody else on-screen, plays Joanna, a writer who's published one book but has since settled into a defeatist cycle of doubt that keeps grinding out mindless fashion journalism while avoiding getting back to her real work. Her husband Michael (Sam Worthington, taking a break from battling aliens and mythological monsters) is a real-estate developer surprisingly not portrayed as a heartless philistine.

The film opens on an argument the two have after coming back from a work party where Joanna spots Michael's voluptuous co-worker, Laura (Eva Mendes), fawning all over him. They go back and forth, Michael's protestations of ignorance as to Laura's carnal intentions seeming willfully naïve. Then Michael heads off for a presentation in Philadelphia - with Laura, no less - leaving Joanna to stew in guilt (thinking she was wrong-headed about her husband) and writer's block in their smartly decorated Chelsea loft.

The film's more romantic interests come alive when that morning Joanna runs into an ex-boyfriend of hers on the street. Alex (Guillaume Canet) is a Parisian writer who shared a brief and flaring kind of affair with Joanna not long before she married Michael, somebody she never told her husband about. Now her husband's far away, she's maybe looking for a way to get even, and Alex is there on the street, smiling wistfully at her and asking what she's doing later. Tadjedin says a lot about Joanna's temptations just in the two sequences of her getting dressed - first for the party with Michael (toss on a sweater, makeup in the cab), second for dinner with Alex (good lingerie, heels, nice dress, long and lingering makeup application in the mirror). The filmmaker slips in a number of small observations like this throughout the film, but acute as they are, it's not enough to make up for some severely underwritten characters.

For all the film's bifurcated structure - Joanna secretly on the town with Alex while Michael boozes the night away with an increasingly seductive and manipulative Laura - it's obvious that Joanna's is the story that Tadjedin wants to tell. Michael and Laura's subplot runs mostly on autopilot, with his character coming off as little more than a chisel-faced blank. Similarly, Tadjedin doesn't give us much to hang on to with Alex, who spends most of the film in quietly grinning contemplation of Joanna, who he is unashamedly trying to woo away. The only male character of interest here is Truman (Griffin Dunne), a publishing friend of Alex's who parachutes into the film to provide some long-overdue edge with his bonhomie, needling questions, and the sly wisdom of a man whose current wife is clearly not his first nor his last.

Last Night pulls viewers in unexpected ways, which is more than can be said for most films of this kind. Its cool-toned visual palette is refreshingly free of the usual hip-Manhattan cliches, and the paralleling stories of fidelity tempted are heavier with anxiousness and worry than seduction. It will be exciting to see where Tadjedin goes next, but as well-executed as so much of it is, this is an exercise in suspenseful romance that doesn't quite know where to go with its story, or how to ensure that we will care much one way or the other.

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