Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
<i>About Last Night</i> is a hidden rom-com gem twice over

About Last Night is a hidden rom-com gem twice over

Graphic: Libby McGuire, Photo: iStock

There are moments when the cyclical nature of pop culture hits you like a battering ram. And that’s exactly what happened to me when I read Roger Ebert’s review of the 1986 Rob Lowe/Demi Moore romantic comedy, About Last Night. “If there’s anyone more afraid of a serious relationship than your average customer in a singles bar, it’s a Hollywood producer,” Ebert writes. “American movies will cheerfully spend millions of dollars on explosions and chases to avoid those moments when people are talking seriously and honestly to one another… Is love possible only with robots and cute little furry things from the special-effects department?”

He was writing in the summer of Top Gun (a movie “so afraid of a real relationship that its real love affair was with airplanes”). And now three and a half decades later—in a year with another Top Gun on the horizon—it’s a question that still feels relevant. In a world where four-quadrant blockbusters reign supreme and grounded character dramas have largely moved over to TV, is there still room for quiet, human love stories on the big screen?

About Last Night suggests there should be. It’s the rom-com so nice they made it twice. Once in the ’80s with Lowe, Moore, Elizabeth Perkins, and Jim Belushi. And again in 2014 with Michael Ealy, Joy Bryant, Regina Hall, and Kevin Hart. The hook of the story is that there is no hook. About Last Night centers on young lovers Danny (Lowe/Ealy) and Debbie (Moore/Bryant) as they move from a casual fling to a long-term relationship, somewhat to the chagrin of their best friends Bernie (Belushi/Hart) and Joan (Perkins/Hall). Both movies chart a year-in-the-life of the daily realities of being a couple: the awkward adjustments of moving in together; pregnancy scares that pass with bittersweet relief; fights that erupt over nothing, and resolve just as quickly.

It’s compelling precisely because it’s the sort of mundane relationship stuff you don’t usually see in film—even in romantic comedies, where high-concept premises and contrived conflicts often mean the central couple don’t even get together until the last scene. Both versions of About Last Night stake their claim in the idea that the sort of everyday relationship problems usually relegated to sitcoms or TV dramedies are worthy of cinematic storytelling. Not just because they deserve to be seen up on a big screen, but because it’s interesting to see them condensed into a purposeful two-hour arc, rather than languidly spread across multiple seasons.

About Last Night is also a fascinating case study in adaptation. The story started life as a bitter little 1976 David Mamet play that helped put the prickly playwright on the map. Titled Sexual Perversity In Chicago, the vignette-heavy one-act deploys the same four-character setup to very different ends. It’s a cynical, expletive-filled look at the sexual politics of the 1970s—one that’s mostly about how earnest, naïve Danny is ultimately corrupted by his cruel, misogynistic best friend, Bernie. Depending on how charitably you want to read Mamet’s intentions, the play is either a brutal cautionary tale about the dangers of toxic masculinity or an edgy dark comedy about how women’s sexual liberation ruined modern dating forever.

Regardless, the filmmakers knew they wanted to take their adaptation in a different direction. A lot had changed from 1976 to 1986, and they figured Mamet’s story had the potential to become a kinder, gentler, but still honest look at contemporary romance. “The message we wanted to send was not that there’s no hope,” producer Jason Brett explained. “It’s more that love hurts, but it’s worth it.” Screenwriters Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue put Danny and Debbie’s romance front and center, and aged down the characters to make their flaws and foibles more forgivable. While the 1986 About Last Night keeps some of Mamet’s colorfully blunt dialogue (particularly for Belushi, who had played Bernie on stage), director Edward Zwick otherwise sands down the play’s rough edges.

That makes About Last Night feel like an older, more mature cousin of the Brat Pack movies, one that lets Moore and Lowe show off their romantic charms and emotional gravitas in engaging—if sometimes a bit stilted—performances. Instead of sexual politics, the film is mostly about the relatable twentysomething shock of realizing there’s never going to be one magical moment where you suddenly feel like a “real” adult. “Don’t I look different?” Debbie practically screams at an old fling when he hits on her after she’s started dating Danny. “I’m in love… Jesus, doesn’t it show?” For all its hilariously gauzy 1980s montages, a lot of About Last Night still feels relatable today. Like Debbie’s frustrations at how quickly she and Danny fall into gendered patterns over housework once they move in together. Or the movie’s thoughtful examination of how easy it is to leave friends in the lurch when you’re caught up in the infatuation of a new relationship.

The 1986 film is really more of a romantic drama with comedic elements, and the big innovation of the 2014 remake is that it switches that balance. Written by Sleeping With Other People’s Leslye Headland and directed by Hot Tub Time Machine’s Steve Pink, 2014’s About Last Night is easily one of the funniest studio rom-coms of the past 10 years. Headland’s script relocates the story from Chicago to Los Angeles, and turns Debbie and Danny’s best friends into a second, zanier couple played by Kevin Hart and Regina Hall. The remake is glossier than the original, both for better and sometimes for worse. But where it really excels is in the comedic chemistry between all four of its leads.

The casting stemmed from prolific producer and frequent Hart collaborator Will Packer, who’s been a long-time pioneer in the push to get more Black leads in big studio films. His goal with About Last Night was to take a script that had been written for a general rom-com audience and cast it with four talented Black actors. This was right around the time that the success of The Best Man Holiday ignited a cultural reckoning about the way that comedies—and romantic comedies in particular—are too often brushed off as “niche” when they feature predominantly non-white casts. In fact, Headland actually wrote an op-ed about how she felt her screenplay was minimized and dismissed by white people in the movie industry once the cast was announced: “It was like my script was suddenly not as good or less than or just plain not cool because of the casting. Whatever. Those people suck.”

It’s an understated slam against anyone who could come away from this movie not impressed by the cast. Even if you’re not usually one for Hart’s familiar schtick, it’s worth seeking out here. Balanced by Hall’s stellar comedic chops, he turns in his best performance to date, grounding his over-the-top persona in a character who still feels like an actual person. And though they’re playing the less exciting couple, Bryant and Ealy also have crackling chemistry, particularly in their early scenes. In fact, Ealy’s such a naturally charismatic leading man, it’s a shame he hasn’t done more work in the rom-com genre outside of the godawful Think Like A Man franchise.

In that same op-ed, Headland also shared her philosophy for crafting the film’s R-rated comedy: “Don’t write jokes, Leslye. Write people.” And though I’m not always a big fan of the “raunchy rom-com” genre, Headland’s character-driven approach gets the balance just right. True to her motto, the raunch and heart don’t feel like two separate elements inelegantly grafted together, but rather a natural outpouring of who these characters are and how they interact with one another—particularly in Bernie and Joan’s wildly sexual yet also surprising sweet pairing. As director Steve Pink wisely observed, “You can’t really have raunchiness and vulgarity unless it’s really warm. Unless there’s an emotional complexity to all the characters, then you don’t want to watch it.”

The 2014 remake also maintains a lot of what works about the 1986 version, particularly in the way it eschews cheap plot contrivances for something more grounded. Instead of external conflict, the About Last Night movies mine their drama from believably interior issues—the way that well-meaning people can be their own worst enemies when they’re scared of commitment or bad at communication or just overwhelmed by the idea of being responsible to and for someone else. While most rom-coms are about the swoon-y bliss of falling in love, About Last Night is about the recognizable challenges of actually being in a relationship.

Both About Last Nights walk a fine line between honesty and optimism—the sort of thing that Mamet may have hated but that has a lot of value when taken on its own merits. To dismiss the movies as merely clichéd or predictable undersells the uniqueness of what they’re trying to do, even if they sometimes do it a little inelegantly. In between their jokes and montages, both films deliver a welcome jolt of recognition. The feeling of “Yes, that’s exactly right, that’s exactly the way it would have happened,” as Ebert put it in that 1986 review. Neither version of About Last Night entirely reinvents the romantic wheel, but that’s sort of what makes them special.

Next time: What’s Your Number? paired Anna Faris with the best Chris.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.