Mamet Monday: ‘Sexual Perversity in Chicago’ stage play gets turned into ‘About Last Night’ … twice, with different degrees of success (Movie reviews)


lthough the two versions of “About Last Night” are one and two degrees removed from David Mamet’s stage play “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” – on which the first film is based (the second film is then based on the first film) – some Mametian traits are still in evidence. Here are my takes on the two movies, one of which is worth the effort to track down:

“About Last Night …” (1986)

The most Mametian element of “ALN” ’86 is the character of Bernie (Jim Belushi), who loudly recounts his sexual exploits to friend Danny (Rob Lowe). In an amusing opening segment, Bernie’s loud and brash monologue covers what seems like an entire day, from the subway ride to work, to the office they share at a sales firm, to the bar after work. Bystanders don’t react, except that some bargoers get interested in his tale of a hotel-room sexual encounter that resembles a gripping war story. This sequence functions as a parody of the way men talk, the way Chicagoans talk, and the way culture has become less refined.

Bernie’s opening monologue functions as a parody of the way men talk, the way Chicagoans talk, and the way culture has become less refined.

The movie – adapted by Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue — loosely comments on male-female dating relations through the two men and two women – Demi Moore’s Debbie and Elizabeth Perkins’ Joan — in their late 20s. For example, the breakup scene between Danny and Debbie finds Danny strangely extrapolating Joan’s situation (being dumped by a married man) into what he assumes Debbie will take as a broad statement on men’s behavior.

I suspect Mamet’s play includes a more pointed commentary, and the way it trickles into the movie is sometimes awkward. An exception is Bernie and his proto-“American Pie” bits of wisdom, among them the proper number of times to call a woman in a week (once, maximum, he says — although this was the era before cellphones and with more personal interaction).

The director is Edward Zwick, who I admire greatly for his TV credits such as “Once and Again,” and I’m tempted to describe “ALN” ’86 as “Mamet meets Zwick.” The Zwickian part is the emphasis on how these individuals interact, without worrying about whether they stand in for wider cultural behaviors. Danny rejects womanizer Bernie’s point of view because he is in love, and love knows nothing of reason, or even what passes for reason from Bernie. But Mamet’s influence on the movie is lessened as it moves forward and focuses on Danny and Debbie taking a crack at living together; at this point, it becomes a proto-“thirtysomething” (That classic Zwick-helmed TV series would launch one year later).

While “ALN” ’86 loses a dimension from the stage play, the remaining dimension is nothing to sneeze at. We’re talking about up-and-coming stars Lowe and Moore playing off each other, after all, in several sexy scenes and many loving moments. The soundtrack includes Bob Seger’s “Living Inside My Heart” and John Waite’s “If Anybody Had a Heart.” Throw in 1980s elements like the women’s big hair, Bernie’s Bears jacket and high tops, vinyl record collections, and bar gatherings after softball games, and the nostalgia is strong with this film.

Although I like “ALN” ’86, and especially enjoy Belushi – who is the life of the movie even if Bernie is a caricature — I knew where it was going once the central relationship got started. The only thing I wasn’t sure about was whether it would have an upbeat or downbeat ending, and it kind of whiffs by splitting the difference. Debbie decides she’ll give Danny another shot, but we don’t get inside her thought process, even though the women’s points of view are emphasized earlier in the film. Not that a downer ending would be preferable, but this feels unearned. I wasn’t surprised to find out Mamet’s play ends with the couple broken up.

“About Last Night” (2014)

The 2014 remake, written by Leslye Headland and directed by Steve Pink, has the same plot but some superficial differences, most notably that Bernie (Kevin Hart) and Joan (Regina Hall) are a couple in addition to being the respective best friends of Danny (Michael Ealy of “Almost Human”) and Debbie (Joy Bryant of “Parenthood”). It’s set in Los Angeles, which doesn’t have the same season-changing character as Chicago.

“ALN” ’14 is slicker and more compact, and a worse film partly because of those reasons. Granted, I didn’t do it any favors by watching it the same day as the original. By doing that, I noticed that the lines held over from the Kazurinsky-DeClue screenplay work better than the new material, which is forgettable sex-centered R-rated sitcom-style writing that allows Hart and Hall to do their love-hate shtick. Almost all of the obviously Mametian dialog from “ALN” ’86 is gone.

Hart is a ball of energy who leaves me jittery, and the quick modern pacing gives the movie an emptiness compared to the original. The two movies end up being about the same length because “ALN” ’14 blasts through the Danny-Debbie scenes faster and the freed-up time goes to the newly crafted Bernie-Joan romance. But both relationships feel scripted; again, this is partly because I’m hyper-aware of the screenplay while comparing it to the original, but it’s also because the pacing is too fast for a viewer to see any of these four Los Angelinos as people rather than characters.

It’s hard to figure out the creative reasons why this version was made. Maybe it was supposed to be a comedic vehicle for Hart, but the screenplay is short on humor, forcing him to strain for laughs, which is exhausting for a viewer. Maybe it exists to compare and contrast the romantic lives of four black people in 2014 Los Angeles against four white people in 1986 Chicago. But the two films’ relationship beats are the same.

Perhaps there’s some value in showing that human nature is the same across races, cities and times, but not so much that “ALN” ’14 is worth bothering with. Although the remake has its share of defenders, I think the original is much better, in addition to being a degree closer to Mamet’s play.

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