Review: ‘About Last Night’ makes the most of a strong adaptation and a great cast

When I first read David Mamet’s play “Sexual Perversity In Chicago,” it was the early ’80s and I was starting to get really caught up in reading as much theater as possible. Mamet was one of the names I became fixated on, and part of that was because of the musical nature of his language.

Many reviewers at the time talked about how realistic Mamet’s dialogue was, but I don’t think that was the appeal at all. Quite the opposite, actually. The Mamet stuff from when he was at his prime is all gorgeous and metered and specific, and if you love the rhythms of the movie of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” then you understand that appeal. It’s not just what those guys say, it is the way they say it, the cascade of profanity, the rat-a-tat back and forth, the hostility hidden in the pauses, the lethal way men circle each other looking for weakness. I fell hard for Mamet. When I got to Florida State University, the first thing I directed was “Sexual Perversity,” and I relished the chance to get in there and play with that text.

When “About Last Night” was released in 1986, it bugged the hell out of me. I thought Jim Belushi was a cop-out casting choice, and I thought Rob Lowe and Demi Moore were as boring as young actors got. It’s not a terrible adaptation by Tim Kazurinsky & Denise DeClue, but it felt like the studio safe version of the text. It was no one particular thing, but rather the general tone struck by director Edward Zwick. It just didn’t work for me as a fan of the material, and even the parts I liked that were most directly lifted from the play felt to me like they’d been softened.

When they announced a new “About Last Night,” I figured they’d be doing another soft and super-easy version of the play, so imagine my surprise when I saw the film and ended up really liking how writer Leslye Headland and director Steve Pink approached the adaptation. It feels to me like they got closer to the original text even though they use less of it word-for-word. Instead, they’ve made smart choices that have updated the text to reflect the way the world is in 2014, and they cast it well. It’s worth noting that there’s nothing about Headland’s script that feels like it was specifically written as the “black version” of the movie, which makes the casting of Michael Ealy, Joy Bryant, Kevin Hart, and Regina Hall seem like a bolder choice. Ealy and Bryant are Danny and Debbie, the main couple in the piece, and the film, like both Mamet’s play and the earlier film, focuses mainly on their relationship. They go from flirtation and early sexual energy to a realization of love to living together to an eventual explosive break-up. That’s not a spoiler; it’s the premise. The point of the piece is to examine all those steps and how they play for each of us and why we subject ourself to this kind of emotional anguish time and time again.

Ealy has been working a lot lately, and before that, he’s one of those guys who has been chipping away at it for a long time. I think a lot of other guys who have displayed the sort of easy charisma and range he has would have gotten their shots earlier, but Hollywood has a hard time figuring out what to do with black leads who they aren’t specifically casting as “black.” Ealy’s got great easy chemistry with Karl Urban on “Almost Human” right now, and I feel like it’s just a matter of time. I’m not in love with the show, but those two guys work so well together that they’ve got me tuning in just to see the interplay between them. He had a thankless role in “Last Vegas,” but he made the most of his onscreen moments with Morgan Freeman. Bryant’s been front and center for several seasons on “Parenthood,” paired with Dax Shepherd for most of her scenes, and she’s great. She’s got a very warm and relaxed presence, and she and Ealy strike some sparks together early on. They make for a seriously pretty couple, and it would be easy to just write them off the way I did with Lowe and Moore in the ’80s version. But Ealy and Bryant are both a little older than Lowe and Moore were, and there’s more weight to the way they play their decisions. These aren’t people with their whole lives ahead of them. They’ve already put on some miles, and they’re starting to see patterns now.

The film also focuses on another couple, the on-again off-again pairing of Bernie (Kevin Hart) and Joan (Regina Hall), and while Danny and Debbie are the main characters, Bernie and Joan are designed to steal the show. And they do. Repeatedly. This is the couple that fights all the time, the couple that depends on the fireworks that come from that level of friction, and Hart and Hall both go for it. They play these roles as big as possible, but thanks to the way Pink and Headland balance things, it’s okay for Bernie and Joan to go big. Danny and Debbie play things small and real and the detail work is what sells the film as a well-made, honest look at the way we build and break relationships. It’s not exactly Mamet’s piece anymore, so it makes sense to use the “About Last Night” title instead, although I’d say this is better than Zwick’s film, and by a fair margin. The play takes place over a single season, but the movie makes a much bigger point of taking place over four consecutive seasons, so this is almost a full year in the lives of these two pairs of friends, these criss-crossed lovers, and that gives them room to digress a bit. It’s not the most plot-driven movie, but that’s not the point.

Headland was the writer of “Bachelorette,” and there’s a sense that she knows how to draw blood with her character work. This film is lighter than that movie, but that doesn’t mean it pulls its emotional punches completely. It feels to me like a movie that wants to leave people feeling optimistic, and they certainly play with some very familiar rom-com tropes. Pink likes a montage, for one thing, and this never quite deteriorates to Neil La Bute territory. This never becomes toxic the way you can definitely read the play, but that feels more like a choice than a compromise, and “About Last Night” definitely plays things honest.

Kevin Hart is on the verge of being just as big in terms of box-office as he is as a live act and “Ride Along” was a strong indication of just how far his audience will push even a mediocre movie. This is a really nice overall piece of work from Hart, and his Bernie seems to be playing the little man complex a bit, overcompensating with Joan and everyone else. Hart reveals the scared little-boy heart of Bernie in a way that Belushi never could, and overall, I think this might be the best overall performance Hart’s given, and part of that is because Hall is such a pro. If you’re going to let Kevin Hart go mad dog at times in the role of Bernie, Joan’s got to be someone who can stand there, take it, and give it back just as good. The two of them really do manage to make you understand how even a messed up dynamic like theirs might work, because it’s what the two of them thrive on.

Considering how juvenile “Hot Tub Time Machine” was, and how barely technically competent it was, I was surprised by how much I thought Pink pulled this together. It is easy in places, and it’s not a reinvention of the genre, but by refusing to play to the typical roadblocks of the genre, the film manages to offer people something honest, and I have no doubt a lot of couples will recognize themselves in the film. “About Last Night” is a perfectly honorable and charming way to spend Valentine’s Day weekend in a movie theater, and the entire cast is working at the very top of their game here to make it as charming as it is.

“About Last Night” opens everywhere on February 14, 2014.