Mamet’s play, a slender one-act in his customary sparse style, features only four characters: (Basically) likable Danny; his vulgar, sexist, horny pal Bernie; Danny’s new girlfriend, (basically) likable Debbie; and Debbie’s best friend and (when we meet her) roommate, the jaded Joan. Over the course of the play, Danny and Debbie meet, have sex, fall in love (maybe), move in together (briefly), fall out of love, move out, and move on. (If you haven’t noticed, it’s the kind of relationship that requires a lot of parentheticals.) It’s a nasty, cynical, and very funny piece of work, full of short and punchy scenes, quotable dialogue, and an admirable lack of interest in anything resembling a happy ending.
The 1986 version pulls something of a bait-and-switch, as the opening dialogue scene between Danny (Rob Lowe, not quite a good actor yet) and Bernie (a surprisingly solid Jim Belushi, who played the role on stage) is an almost-verbatim recreation of the opening scene of the play, a memorable duet wherein Bernie walks through a sexual encounter that got way out of hand. And that, weirdly, is about all of the play that remains. Screenwriters Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue keep the four key characters and the basic storyline, but they throw out the rest of Mamet’s dialogue, scenes, and — most importantly — his cynicism, opting instead to craft a Yuppie rom-com, heavy on the montages and overbearing pop score. Most damagingly, they take a total 180 on the material and decide Danny and Deb are great together, grafting on a Happily Ever After conclusion that misses the point of the material entirely.
“Mr. Mamet’s original work sees a world coming apart at the seams, not because of any social, economic, military or environmental upheavals, but because communication has been reduced to clichés that deny the possibility of effective thought and action,” wrote Vincent Canby in his New York Times review. “Most films shouldn’t be criticized primarily in terms of their source material. Movies have lives of their own. However, when a work as particular as Sexual Perversity in Chicago is made into a movie, the rule doesn’t apply. You’ve a right to wonder why anyone would want to work so hard — with such an expenditure of imagination — to transform a play with such a distinctive voice into a movie that sounds like any number of others.”
If anything, the new ALN is even further removed from that source material. Most scandalously, this quintessentially Chicago story has been moved to Los Angeles (at one point, as an apparent in-joke for the five of us who care, Danny proposes the following toast: “Here’s to another night of sexual perversity in Los Angeles”). I think I heard exactly one line from the play in it (Joan’s “I give it two months”); not even the opening Danny/Bernie duet gets replicated this time around, since Bernie is now explaining how he had sex with Joan (!), and her telling of the same story to Debbie is intercut. The slickness of the picture and the cheeriness of its conclusion (which they somehow double down on) seems inspired less by the play than the ’86 adaptation.
And yet somehow, this new film does seem closer to the raucous spirit and fuck-it vulgarity of the source material, thanks primarily to a delightfully foulmouthed script by Leslye Headland (who wrote and directed the wonderful Bachelorette), which thankfully makes the female characters just as interesting (and dirty) as the guys. As before, most of the good lines go to Bernie and Joan, played here by Kevin Hart and Regina Hall (who are very funny together); Danny and Deb are left to be kind of soft and gooey and boring. But Ealy and (especially) Bryant are naturalistic and likable, and kudos to all involved for deciding not to alter the script once this African-American cast was in place; that shouldn’t be a big deal, but it kind of is.
Let’s face it: there’s a pretty good chance much of the audience for About Last Night won’t know the Mamet play (or even the Zwick original), and won’t care. This is perfectly fine; as we’ve discussed, the particulars of adaptation are mostly irrelevant if the final work is worthwhile, as this one is. But you wonder why either film even bothered keeping the names and attributing the credit to a play both mostly ignored. And it doesn’t make the evolution of Sexual Perversity from a fiercely anti-romance screed to (and I’m quoting from the press release here) a “classic romantic comedy” any less peculiar. What’s especially strange is that Mamet’s play isn’t typical theatre fare — it’s a series of short, tight scenes in shifting locations. In other words, it’s awfully cinematic, which makes you wonder why no one’s bothered to make a movie of it yet.