Lessons from ‘Last Night’: Eva Mendes is hot, and sometimes marriages aren’t worth saving

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Still image from Last Night. ()
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The Tribeca Film Festival, established by Robert De Niro in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center to revitalize the economy of Lower Manhattan, has screened more than 1,200 films from over 80 countries since its first iteration in 2002. The 2011 festival goes from April 21-May 1, and over the next couple of weeks, Sheila will be reviewing as many of the screened films for Capital as she can possibly see in a two-week period. See the schedule of public screenings and purchase tickets here.

Last Night, written and directed by Massy Tadjedin, is a cautionary tale of what happens when two drips are allowed to marry.

As played by Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington, Joanna and Michael are a young married couple who were college sweethearts and now live in a gorgeous Tribeca loft apartment designed to make native New Yorkers feel envious.

In the first scene of the movie, Joanna witnesses Michael flirting with his new co-worker Laura (Eva Mendes) at a party. Joanna confronts Michael later, demanding to know if he is attracted to her. The question makes Joanna seem dumb. (Laura is played by Eva Mendes—of course he's attracted to her.) Michael's answers are defensive and ambiguous enough that Joanna begins to doubt that he is being truthful. When Michael goes away on an overnight business trip to Philadelphia (with the aforementioned Laura), Joanna, a freelance writer, is left aimless and depressed, elegantly smoking cigarettes in her elegant, empty loft.

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On a morning walk, she has a surprise encounter with a man named Alex (Guillaume Canet) and it is clear from their awkward and sexually charged behavior that they were once involved. Alex happens to be in town, and apparently was just wandering through the Tribeca neighborhood in the hopes that he would run into his old love. With Michael out of town, and Joanna consumed with worry about his infidelity, she accepts an invitation to join Alex for a drink that night, dressing up in a slinky black gown and treacherous purple pumps. None of this bodes well, and none of it really matters, either.

Last Night cuts between the action in Philadelphia involving Michael and Laura, and the action in New York involving Joanna and Alex. Laura is, indeed, putting the moves on Michael. They have a drink at the hotel bar, sharing personal stories. Then they go to the hotel pool in the middle of the night and swim in their underwear, sharing more personal stories. Meanwhile, Joanna and Alex meet up with Truman, a friend of Alex's (in an amusing cameo by Griffin Dunne), and Truman's role appears to be to grill Joanna on what she is doing out with another man when her husband is out of town.

It's a valid question, and it's one that the film never really answers. The relationship between Joanna and Michael is not clearly defined enough for an audience to invest in them as a couple, and neither of them emerges as a particularly compelling character. Knightley and Worthington can both be very effective with the right material, but here they are tepid, and their relationship is amorphous and bland.

Their first fight, about Laura, should make it seem as though cracks are opening up in a carefully constructed edifice. Instead, it seems petty and half-hearted. Their apartment, while beautiful, feels like a set, not a space inhabited by a real-life young couple.

Unlike I Am Love, the recent film that took on similar material, Last Night does not let us know what, exactly, would be destroyed if these two split up. Yes, a marriage would end, but it doesn't seem that these two sad people would actually mind all that much. What is their life together and how strong is their investment in their life? Whence their bond, and their malaise?

If a marriage could be toppled merely by a husband flirting with a babe at a party, then the divorce rate would be much higher than it already is. In I Am Love, Tilda Swinton manages to show that during her long marriage, she has actually been an exile in her own family, and when the time comes for her to flee, the ties that bound her turn out to be as flimsy as air. And so every moment in I Am Love vibrates with a palpable sense of impending identity disintegration. Last Night lacks those kinds of stakes, beyond the lesson that if you cheat on your spouse, bad things might happen. Perhaps Tadjedin is trying to suggest that just by bringing up the topic of cheating, you welcome the actuality of it.

The coincidental (too much so) encounter between Joanna and Alex the night after Joanna fought with Michael about his cheating ways launches Joanna into dangerous territory. Alex and Joanna (apparently) dated for a summer when she and Michael had broken up for a brief period. Joanna has never told Michael about Alex. Her relationship with Alex was intellectual and passionate—they talked about, oh, books, and poetry, and philosophy. We are meant to believe, in the words of folk singer Christine Lavin, that this was "the kind of love you never recover from."

Maybe part of the problem with all of this is the casting of Guillaume Canet as Alex, who plays the part in such an obvious, on-the-nose manner that he ends up being creepy and presumptuous rather than romantic and sad. He smiles intimately at her, he stands too close, he gives the impression that while he is looking at her he is not listening to a word she says.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, at the same moment, Michael and Laura play with fire. Laura, who at first seems set up to be the generic hot babe, actually turns out to be a woman with some substance, who behaves the way she does for a very clear reason that she articulates during the midnight-underwear-swim. She's not a dragon lady, or a femme fatale, but she understands he wants her, so she opens up the space for something to happen. Michael is loaded down with responsibilities at his job, and wants to have a little fun, and Eva Mendes in a swimming pool in her underwear is hard to resist. Near impossible, I'd say. So again, the scene lacks stakes, and Worthington's character lacks motivation beyond the totally obvious fact that he wants to touch a hot woman in wet underwear.

Knightley, despite her career as a leading lady, has never struck me as a particularly romantic figure. She seems too self-sufficient, too driven, and when she is allowed to be feisty and tomboyish (her best performance, to date, has been in Bend It Like Beckham) she is closer to her actual essence. Knightley seems lost in Last Night, and while it is apparent that the script wants us to believe that she is drawn to Alex because of the intense past they shared, her behavior seems more like that of a willful tantrumy child (which actually would have been more interesting, if the script had been honest about it). Worthington makes no impression in Last Night, which is odd, since he is very likeable as an actor. But his presence here is flabby and noncommittal.

Filmed beautifully by Satsuki Mitchell, with deep blue dusky skies and golden lamplight, Last Night has the makings of a melancholy New York movie, steeped in the romantic atmosphere of the cobblestones of Tribeca. The beauty of the cinematography stands in sharp contrast with the bland performances.

There are two moments in Last Night where glimpses of Tadjedin's potential as a director, as well as the potential of her talented cast, are immediately apparent. They stand out.

The last moment of the film is a close-up of Knightley (to say more than that would be a spoiler), and it is suddenly playful, leaving us hanging in a delightful way. It is an unconventional and exciting moment, reminiscent of the Cassavetes-inspired jump-cuts in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, which, from the get-go, lets us know that we are watching people whose marriages are rupturing, the jump-cuts reflecting their inner lives.

Tadjedin's choice to end the film the way she does is bold, and speaks well of her courage as a director.

Also near the end of the film, there is one moment when an expression flashes across Eva Mendes' beautiful face that gives a sense of what Last Night could have been if it had had a little more guts, if it had taken the time to create actual characters rather than drippy ciphers. She sits in her business suit in the hotel lobby in Philadelphia, and she looks immaculate. She is given some news, and in that moment, a desolate wave crosses over her face, a wave that seems to go to her core. It is the only glimpse of real feeling in Last Night, and it made me ache for that movie, the one that wasn't filmed, in which such an expression would have meant something.