Married couple Michael and Joanna attend a party with the former’s coworkers one evening; the latter grows jealous and suspicious of her husband after meeting Laura (Eva Mendes), one of his business partners of whom he’s never spoken despite having flown to LA with her for a prior business trip. Reconciling later that night the couple then part ways the following morning as Michael hops a plane to Philly with Laura and Andy (Daniel Eric Gold), leaving Joanna to mill about and amuse herself– until she runs into an old flame, Alex (Guillaume Canet). Anyone who understands cinema of temptation can easily see where Massy Tadjedin’s Last Night is going from here.
Unfortunately the most that can be said about Tadjedin’s film is that it isn’t bad, just bland. And it flirts too much with being genuinely good to overcome how ultimately unsatisfying it truly is. As Michael and Joanna spend a night with their respective potential paramours, Last Night pushes quite hard to keep itself in shape and forsake easy answers; this is admirable, and largely the movie succeeds in its efforts to keep everything untied and loose by the end. There are no clean conclusions drawn here, just beautifully drawn ambiguity and a sense of unease at what transpired over the course of both of our principles’ evenings.
But try as it might in that area, Last Night makes no great insights that yield any sort of deeper meaning. It’s about love, temptation, suspicion, and marital paranoia but without a consistent application of gravity; for a movie in which both partners in a three-year marriage are presented with opportunities to engage in extra-marital bouncy-bouncy, Last Night feels shockingly light and airy. Maybe there’s a point to that. Maybe Tadjedin’s intention is to create a sense of ease so as to relax us and in doing so perhaps replicate ever so slightly the atmosphere of both Michael’s and Joanna’s encounters with old flames and what-ifs. Infidelities, Tadjedin seems to be saying, are easy; we’re lulled into them, as Michael is coaxed into spending time alone with Laura and Joanna finds herself persuaded to roam the city at night with Alex.
Whether the director meant to foster such an effect or not, it works well enough to a point. When the couple both are forced to face themselves and really confront the ramifications of their unfaithfulness, though, the tone never changes. That breeziness never gives way to something with more of an edge. Maybe none of that would matter if Last Night stated much of anything profound about the couple’s circumstances; apart from one or two astute observations about the nature of cheating, spoken through the perspective of Chanet’s French interloper Alex, little is made of Michael’s and Joanna’s temptations that either isn’t obvious on its face or hasn’t been said before. For the risks the film takes in being so open-ended, Last Night never makes a satisfying enough case for making those wagers of narrative in the first place.
In all this I mean to say that Last Night might be a more successful drama of romance and fidelity had it taken its characters further. Their surfaces all receive a hearty scratching, but try as Tadjedin may her film can’t quite root its way beneath the exteriors of these characters and their problems and the personal truths that guide them into their varying situations. In a way, Last Night wants us to believe that Michael and Joanna are two people thoroughly incapable of committing to adultery, yet they allow themselves to be beguiled enough where such an action becomes a very real possibility; there’s something missing in between the dichotomy between both elements that the story sorely needed to tie everything together and make the plot completely cogent.
Last Night isn’t a total waste, though. For one thing, it looks rather lovely in an uncomplicated and breezy fashion; for another, it’s mostly well-acted. Sam Worthington gives more than anyone might reasonably expect of him given his track record in “acting”; calling his performance good might be a slight stretch but he gives Michael an easy-going manner that makes his character palatable if somewhat frustratingly understated. Knightley, on the other hand, really asserts the circumference of Joanna and gives us a crystal-clear impression of who she is and what in God’s name could impel her to join the dangerously charming Alex for a night on the town in Michael’s absence. She’s beautiful and strong-willed and in all of that she’s also somewhat lost. Chanet and Mendes both play the role of “potential home-wreckers”; Chanet plays things sly and romantic while Mendes cranks up innocent vulnerability and combustible sultriness.
Interestingly, I’m almost more curious about their stories than Michael’s and Joanna’s. How about that? We get glimpses of who all four characters are but I wonder if Last Night might have been better off had Tadjedin treated Alex and Laura even less as ciphers and more as actual characters with actual motivations and actual feelings. It’s not that they’re blank, emotionless slates; it’s just that they don’t enjoy the same plateau of perspective as the film’s leads. If Last Night had invested itself more in all four of its driving characters, maybe Tadjedin would have had something special and painfully revealing about these people. Alas, the film displays promise but ultimately speaks far too quietly for any of its ideas to have the impact they should have.