, 84 m., 2013
Stanley Tucci (Fred), Alice Eve (Velvet). Directed by Neil LaBute and produced by Michael Corrente, Daryl Freimark, Tim Harms, Trent Othick, and David Zander. Screenplay by LaBute.
Neil LaBute has been playing both sides of the Gender Wars against the middle for the better part of two decades. With Some Velvet Morning, his latest two-hander, another expose’ of the twisted underbelly of men and women, he is (perhaps) at his most cynical, misanthropic – and literate – which, indeed, is saying something.
Treading lightly around the plot is a necessity to avoid certain spoilers. So: The film begins when Stanley Tucci, as “Fred,” shows up with two handfuls of luggage at the door of a pretty young British-accented blond whom he refers to (much to her chagrin) as “Velvet” (Alice Eve from Star Trek Into Darkness). He has come to say he’s finally left his wife. The proceedings begin pleasantly yet awkwardly enough, with the two hinting at a past relationship betwixt them, “Velvet” revealing that she is in an on-again/off-again affair with “Fred’s” married son, past resentments boiling to the surface all the while. To say there’s more than meets the eye going on here, however, would be selling the phrase somewhat short – but more on that later.
Their conversation, which spans seemingly 3 floors of “Velvet’s” gorgeous urban townhouse and runs in about 80 minutes of real time, ping-pongs between forced pleasantries, profanely cruel jabs, foul romantic overtures with more than a twinge of passive aggressive undertone, and finally…well, more on that in a moment. These are clearly two clever, quick-witted and literate professional people with lots of history between them, as likely to psychologically and emotionally eviscerate each other with words as they are to tear into each other sexually, as characters in LaBute’s world are want to do. They are caught in LaBute’s web of constant (if precise) verbal sparring, carefully modulating and modifying their word choices, checking each other and themselves on a consistent basis. Indeed, LaBute’s dialogue has the shape and contours of sniper fire, and the verbal game these characters are locked in begins to resemble elements of Edward Albee’s and Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) or its latter-day descendant, Patrick Marber’s Closer (2004; also adapted by Nichols).
The film has been written and directed by playwright-turned-filmmaker Neil LaBute, whose rather static direction, careful dialogue and potboiler premise between only two characters in real-time betray some stage origin (though this is not credited as either one of his play adaptations or anyone else’s). LaBute was the enfant terrible of 90’s independent cinema, part of the Sundance generation of dark, twisted minds like Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness) by way of dark, mid-period Woody Allen (Husbands and Wives, Deconstructing Harry, for example).
After an on-again/off-again flirtation with Hollywood cinema, making rather idiosyncratic stabs at genres such as wacky comedy (Nurse Betty), historically-infused romance (Possession), campy horror (The Wicker Man), domestic thrillers (Lakeview Terrace; which did, in fairness, manage to involve LaBute’s gender tropes and throw in controversial race issues to stack the deck) and raunchy screwball comedy (Death at a Funeral), with two of those being potentially ill-advised remakes of well-regarded British films, this feels a bit like LaBute coming back to the “roots” of his earlier, dark, misanthropic emissions from the front-lines of the Gender Wars. After work such as In the Company of Men (1997), Your Friends & Neighbors (1998), and The Shape of Things (2003; based on his play), as such, this feels a tad bit like a “director’s exercise” in the early-going, with LaBute flexing his proverbial muscles as if to say, “I’m back! I still got it!” – as if anyone could’ve thought “it” ever left him, despite his often critically/commercially disastrous Hollywood sojourns.
If this film isn’t quite as overall ambitious as those efforts in its grand, sweeping statements on (make that indictments of) the things men and women are capable of doing to each other over sex and, ostensibly, love, it nevertheless contains those films’ razor-sharp edges. Of course, Tucci and Eve are up to the task – as most actors are when faced with LaBute’s challenging text. Aesthetically, the film contains rather rough but steady hand-held camerawork and, as always, plain if adequate lighting. There isn’t anything particularly appealing about these characters or the world they inhabit, and the filmmakers make little to no effort to gussy things up to suggest otherwise.
By presenting these proceedings on a rather simple surface level, it allows LaBute to floor the unsuspecting audience member with a pretty stunning turn of events. After yet another round of horrific verbal sparring followed by a sexually-infused (metaphorical) gut punch, LaBute “rewards” his audience with a figurative splash of cold water and slap to the face. Taking a turn that tantalizingly reminds me of the more “fantastical” element at the end of Solondz’s Dark Horse (2011), LaBute here turns the film and everything we thought we knew about these characters on its head in the last 3 minutes, about which the less said the better.
Suffice to say, look first for the telling clue in the opening credits to what could be read as a pretty “shocking twist” and you will have some sense of what LaBute is truly up to here. The final shot, then, of one character’s face before they exit the frame, becomes an equally telling, haunting and even moving suggestion of the true nature of what’s going on, and an alternative perspective on all which came before. It’s a gutsy move, pulling the rug but trusting the audience to get wrapped up in it that late in the game. And it works, leaving the audience a bit dazed and stunned at the story’s overall implications. In a sense, this might be one of the more sophisticated statements LaBute has made on just what makes (some) men and women tick.