Massy Tedjedin's Last Night begins with a sequence that is a bit worrisome, it seems so self-consciously artsy. Married couple Joanna (Keira Knightley) and Michael (Sam Worthington) are going to a cocktail party, some kind of work function, but their time at home before, their taxi journeys back and forth, and their encounters at the event are played in fragments, hopscotching to and fro to the accompaniment of rather sad piano music. We brace ourselves for a mannered and overwrought examination of white people problems.
To some degree, Last Night is that. It is also a very good film. Does it suffer from the kind of upscale New York insularism that turns some people off of, say, Woody Allen's movies? Sure. The characters that populate Last Night are, for the most part, wealthy and privileged, preoccupied with matters that don't require them to cast a gaze further outward than the four walls of their fabulous downtown apartments. But when the characters are drawn with complexity, and when the dialogue they exchange is intelligent--as in Allen's films, and as in this one--those concerns are of little consequence. Once it gets past its somewhat too-precious opening and in to the heart of matters, the picture penetrates.
It comes to life, really, during that first sequence, when Joanna glimpses Michael out on a balcony with a gorgeous co-worker, Laura (Eva Mendes, temptation personified); their backs to Michael's wife, Laura touches him in a seemingly intimate, lingering way. Joanna is quietly furious all the way home; that night, they have an exhausting, circular argument, her wardrobe (a men's undershirt) the first of several no-doubt-deliberate echoes of Eyes Wide Shut. The portrait of their marriage is commendably complicated; they're not unhappy, and they're comfortable, which is good, and they're honest, right? No one wants to rock the boat. "I'm sorry," Michael says, spent. "What for?" she asks. "I'm not sure," he replies. The married men in the audience nod in agreement.
The next morning, he's off to Philadelphia on a business trip--with the woman in question, natch. Joanna, meanwhile, runs into her ex-boyfriend Alex (Guillaume Canet), a smooth-talking French Patrick Dempsey clone; he's in town for one night, and would she like to have some dinner? Well of course she would. And then we intercut between the two people, the two cities, the two opportunities.
It's a simple premise, but it's not a simple film. These matters are complicated; contrary to the monsters and angels normally created for cinematic takes on infidelity, it's not a matter of good and bad relationships, or easy choices. Tadjedin (who also wrote the script) captures, for both of them, the sexy thrill of these encounters, the charge of possibility presented by flirtation ("I always think of you when things aren't going well," Joanna tells Alex), the way that these innocent exchanges lead inevitably to points of no return--perhaps.
The picture's only major flaw is the casting of Worthington, the slabbed but blank lead in action films like Avatar, Terminator: Salvation, and Clash of the Titans, who confirms here that, no, he was not hiding some deep reserve of skill in those shallow blockbusters. He's just sort of dull and lifeless (if he's trying to underplay, he does it to a point of inertia), and Knightly simply acts circles around him. She's terrific; the way her eyes burn when she glimpses them on that balcony pivots the whole movie. It's a genuinely sexy performance--as much or her wit and intelligence as for the longing that she occasionally allows to take her over. Mendes is quietly good, resisting the urge to overdo (and overvamp) her role the way a lesser actress would. Canet is charismatic, if a bit of a blank slate.
So the quality of writing and performances is a bit uneven--but for once, in the favor of the female roles, so those complaints are registered mildly. Overall, Last Night is a nuanced and compelling picture, and has moments so honest and true, it's almost uncomfortably personal to watch.