You know how it goes: An attractive married couple go out to a party one night wreathed in smiles but return some hours later in stony silence. The shot of the two of them in bed, backs turned toward each other and mutual profiles radiating dissatisfaction in the dark as sirens blare from the street, is a cliche that feels almost as old as cinema itself. And yet the portrayal of this cliche in “Last Night” gets under your skin. Pretty soon, it starts to itch.
Maybe it’s the couple who do it to you: Keira Knightley, for once not wearing a period costume, and Sam Worthington, who’s been showcasing his capabilities (or lack thereof) outside of the action genre since starring in “Avatar.” They play Manhattan couple Joanna and Michael, supposedly sizzling hot for each other but emanating coolish poise, hip to the core and dripping with self-confidence. He’s a successful realtor and she’s an aspiring writer. He dresses in top-line Brooks Brothers and she wears expensive yet grungy duds.
Just like that, they could walk into a 1990s Woody Allen picture, but two minutes in their company brings out this fact: Joanna and Michael are dull. Their conversations are self-important without being funny, their passion oh-so-artfully contrived. As a Conde-Nast fashion spread, Michael and Joanna are perfect. As a man and woman exploring the boundaries of marital lust, they’re perhaps not very effective.
“Last Night” is the directorial debut of Massy Tadjedin (who also wrote the screenplay), but there’s a jaded maturity to the proceedings that belie her lack of experience behind the camera and at the helm. One minute Joanna and Michael seem like the quintessential young, well-off urban couple, hiding their insecurities behind a facade of blustering bravado (and seeming all the more vulnerable for it). But at other times, they assume the tangible patina of something gone brown and stale.
Worthington as Michael is guiltier of the sin of not caring; from scene one, the man is curiously devoid of expression and is permanently rigid. My money is on Worthington being the next Keanu Reeves, except that the present Keanu Reeves seems intent on protecting his Turf of Wooden Acting at all costs.
Knightley, on the other hand, can register pain and misery if only for a superb, fleeting second. Her Joanna is much more interesting to watch, though the story often calls for her being shrill and shrewish, upon which one begins to root for Michael just a tiny bit.
What happens is, they go to an office party sponsored by Michael’s company and among all the free-flowing champagne and enticing plates of angel-hair pasta, Joanna spots (or thinks she does) her husband enjoying a cheeky spot of flirting with foxy colleague Laura (Eva Mendes) out on the balcony.
Back home, Joanna launches into a kind of controlled scream-fest (you know, the kind where she raises her voice once every three minutes and the rest of the time her words come out like bullets from a gun with a silencer) and Michael accuses her of being paranoid.
The next day, he takes off on an overnight business trip accompanied by Laura, and Joanna faces the prospect of a solitary night spent at the computer. She’s worried, but not that worried. The audience, however, already has the answer to the question, “Will Michael be able to resist the fatal charms of Laura (and the additional complication that she’s a genuinely lovely person) and return to their swanky Tribeca loft with his vows intact?” Like it’ll snow in hell!
The story quickly rides into an intersection (and good thing too, because Michael can only muster about the same level of passion as a bluefin tuna at Tsukiji Fish Market) as Joanna is waylaid on the street by French ex-lover Alex (Guillaume Canet), fresh off the plane from Paris. Alex is all the things that Michael isn’t — scruffy, impulsive, warm. And he’s clearly dying to mend the rift.
The promise of late-afternoon drinks has Joanna spending the day prepping and showering and applying makeup assiduously. She also selects the sort of underwear every woman secretly has stashed in her closet.
“Last Night” doesn’t tell you anything you don’t know, but the concluding chapter reveals small, unexpected pockets of surprises. Up till then, the story is studded with familiar deja-vu details, such as the cigarettes Joanna sneaks when Michael’s not around. The trail of smoke rising from her lips evokes a different era, which from a distance seems exciting and charged with romantic mystery. When she’s smoking, the camera stays fixed on Joanna’s face and her expressive eyes say that she’s not there anymore, but that she’s transported herself to another city, most likely in the arms of another man. In a movie that’s all about sex, these somehow comprise the most erotic moments.