Extramarital temptation rears its pretty head in “Last Night,” an aptly gorgeous-looking Manhattan meller whose quartet of sexy actors proves no less attractive than the well-mounted pic as a whole. An “Indecent Proposal” of sorts, the directorial debut of screenwriter Missy Tadjedin follows young and wealthy Joanna and Michael Reed (Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington) through a suspicion-filled marital quarrel that leads each to weigh the costs and benefits of cheating on the other. Once wedded to Miramax and currently single, Tadjedin’s tastefully provocative, ultimately haunting pic should raise the pulses of distribs and auds alike.
That all of the characters — including the unmarried objects of desire (Guillaume Canet and Eva Mendes) — appear painfully aware of the ramifications of screwing around makes the movie an intellectual experience as much as an emotional one. Indeed, some may consider the film disappointingly chaste for centering much of its action between the ears, although Tadjedin offers no shortage of eye candy along the way.
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At Michael’s swanky business party, journo Joanna spies her hubby on a patio having what appears to be an intimate moment with his new and lovely young commercial real-estate development colleague, Laura (Mendes). Back at home in their palatial downtown loft, Joanna stomps around, drinks and smokes, accuses Michael of flirting at minimum and cheating more likely, then goes to sleep on the couch. Dialogue in these early scenes isn’t always incisive (“Why’d you build the Berlin Wall of magazines?” Michael asks his back-issue-loving wife), but Tadjedin manages to capture the ugly essence of marital bickering nonetheless.
After Michael leaves on a business trip to Philadelphia with Laura, Tadjedin teasingly declining to reveal the exact nature of the pair’s relationship, Joanna is suddenly visited by Alex (Canet), a Parisian former lover of hers who admits he has been “keeping tabs” on her. The film then crosscuts between the two marrieds’ tempting evenings in separate cities — Joanna on an impulsively skedded double date with Alex and his friends (Griffin Dunne and Stephanie Romanov), and Michael and Laura contriving in the company of business associates to snag some quality time alone.
Favoring narrative foreplay and insinuation over incident (while providing plenty of lubricating alcohol to lovers on both sides), Tadjedin (who wrote “The Jacket”) aims to withhold her dramatic payoff for as long as possible. If the movie never fully explodes, that would seem to suit upscale characters conditioned to keep their tempers in check. And though the streets in both cities, New York and Philly, appear implausibly light on traffic, that somehow gels with our sense that the two couples are, even in seemingly innocuous conversation, indulging in private fantasies.
Tadjedin, charting her intermittently honest and cagey characters through various flashbacks and flash-forwards, asks the viewer to consider whether a purely emotional affair can be as destructive to a marriage as a sexual one, if not moreso. Her highly distinguished crew of collaborators — including costume designer Ann Roth, editor Susan Morse, d.p. Peter Deming and music supervisor Randall Poster — make the enticement palpable with alluring contributions that push past an audience’s defenses.
All the actors perform capably, with Mendes particularly appealing in a rare dramatic role as a woman who’ll demand nothing of her married loved one, but who’ll take anything that comes.
Even at a mere 92 minutes, “Last Night” manages to feel like a full meal — with an appropriately indulgent dessert.