Just as animated characters who look too human creep us out, could there be a phenomenon we might call the RomCom Uncanny Valley, a case when movie stars’ gorgeousness fully outshines our ability to believe their characters’ humdrum relationship problems? Radiant lovers make radiant love — and then argue about it — in Steve Pink’s spirited, crowd-pleasing retake of About Last Night, often in a distinguished downtown L.A. loft boasting a couples’ bathtub so elegantly complex (and so far from a toilet) that I must have missed the scene where lead lover Danny (Michael Ealy), a sweet-tempered mensch in a go-nowhere sales job, temporarily becomes a billionaire.
But sympathetic audiences will buy it, just as we buy that Danny is unlucky in love despite his world-class abs, those ocean-blue eyes, and a jaw that the artists behind superhero comics might sketch and then erase for being a little much. That goes double for Joy Bryant as Debbie, his bathmate. Here is peak human beauty, and something beyond peak human hairstyling, possessed by an actress skilled enough that she just has to dimple up and look a touch uncertain to convince us her character has the same problems as the rest of us.
Those problems, in About Last Night, mostly come down to the raw what-are-we-doing-here basics: Are we hooking up? Are we using a condom? Are we in love? Are we bored? And the film’s refrain, “Are we fighting?” Somehow, it works. Imagine a room of Grecian sculptures of the gods bickering about using coasters on dining-room tables and still getting you to identify with them. The arc is familiar, as are scraps of the film’s wall-to-wall dialogue, tatters of which date back to 1974 and David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago, the tough-minded play that spawned the frank-talk relationship comedy genre and countless lesser, lighter movies and sitcoms — as well as those nights when friends of yours cast you in the role of sitting with them as they hash over whether they’re in a relationship or not. Pink’s canny remake feels your pain; hilariously, as its two principal couples hook up and break up, their best friends grow increasingly sick of serving as sounding boards.
Pink’s film chucks most of Mamet save character names and a strained reference to the play’s title. Instead, this is an update (to today), a transplant (to Los Angeles), and a broadening (to a Kevin Hart sex comedy) of the ’86 film rather than Mamet. It’s also given a warming: While Regina Hall’s Joan expounds on a man’s package (“Impressive but not threatening — it’s the John Legend of penises”), and Kevin Hart’s Bernie hollers at Joan over who’s going to be on top (“That shit fucks with my knees!”), the raw talk here is jolly rather than bracing or upsetting. It’s bring-the-house-down stuff, and there’s never a doubt that these men and women want, deep down, to fall in Happy Ending Love. Far from a film about sharks sharking and love not working out, this About Last Night revels in friendship, fidelity, and something too rarely seen in the movies today: the idea that being young and black in Los Angeles can be glorious. You know all those older white dudes who gas on about how Annie Hall urged them toward the selves they became? Don’t discount the power of urbane representation, even if the lives onscreen (that tub!) might seem improbable.
Mostly, Hart aces his many showcase moments, not so much stealing the movie as occasionally letting the other actors possess it for a while. Like Ealy and Bryant, he’s in terrific shape — one nice thing here is that we see the characters actually work at maintaining their spectacular bodies — and he’s not presented as if there’s something inherently ridiculous about him, as in too many other movies. In junk like Grudge Match he played a dispiriting caricature, a tiny black comedian hired to shout crazy shit in a movie full of lumbering old men. In About Last Night, he comes across as an actor. His Bernie likes to be a caricature, a cartoon whose comically aggressive sexuality seems to be an adaptive strategy — he’s built to a different scale than those other guys, so he’s got to work harder. (A lot of layers for a film role originated by James Belushi!) That makes the crazy shit he shouts funnier, even touching sometimes; he’s perfectly credible as the movie’s hound, and his horny clowning powers most of the best scenes, especially his sex/shout matches with Hall, also an accomplished and charismatic comic performer. These two are like packets of firecrackers, lit and tossed at each other: They set each other off, a little loud but tremendously satisfying. Good thing the movie that contains them is sturdy enough that they don’t burn it down.