By Steve Greene | Criticwire February 14, 2014 at 1:45PM
By the cosmic power of the theatrical release calendar continuum (or the desire of studio execs to wield competing romantic films on a holiday weekend), we've got two new films opening today that are updates of well-known '80s fare.
But in a way, the original film versions of "About Last Night" and "Endless Love" were both remakes themselves, each drawing from preexisting literary source material. Edward Zwick's 1986 "About Last Night..." starring the foursome of Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Jim Belushi and Elizabeth Perkins, was a screen adaptation of David Mamet's play from a dozen years before,"Sexual Perversity in Chicago." Meanwhile, the 1981 version of "Endless Love" reworked the original Scott Spencer novel for the screen, with director Franco Zeffirelli leading the young duo of Brooke Shields and Martin Hewitt.
Although the name recognition of these titles was enough to greenlight a revamp of these existing romantic properties, both comedic and dramatic, neither found universal critical acclaim on their initial release. As some retrospective pieces have pointed out this week, the originals may be considered "classic" based more on rewatches than initial quality. So now, three decades later, when "About Last Night" and "Endless Love" are once again looking for audience approval, have these newer versions solved some of the quibbles that befell their cinematic predecessors?
A Problem of Adaptation:
Inevitably, each incarnation of "Endless Love" was/is going to be evaluated on its relationship to those that came before it. In 1981, the main problem seemed to be that the novel proved too complex, both in style and form, for an adequate film adaptation to do it justice. Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times following the film's release that "Mr. Zeffirelli and his screenwriter, Judith Rascoe, have bitten off so much more than they can chew that their film is virtually unintelligible at times. A great deal happens in the novel, much more than this two-hour movie can contain. But it tries to touch so many bases that its transitions are jolting, its scenes often undeveloped, and the motives of its characters frequently unclear."
On Maslin's charges, Shana Feste's remake isn't inherently guilty. In an attempt to avoid the impossible-to-juggle density of the original, though, the new crew has opted for genre adherence. Avoiding some of the wacky, arson-based twist and turns has meant creating something that feels committed to to being near-unremarkable. Matt Prigge summarizes this problem in his Metro review, writing, "Safe and predictable, there is nothing remotely surprising (and, therefore, interesting) about this rudimentary remake. The movie is so simple and sappy in its plotting that it seems more suited for the Hallmark Channel than the big screen. It’s also doesn’t take much to see that it’s sampling more from the work of Nicholas Sparks than Spencer’s book." (As its '80s remake counterpart proves below, eschewing the source material doesn't always have to end in complete nondescriptness.)
Roger Ebert pinpointed one of the 1981 film's shortcomings in its approach to its primary protagonist. He recognized a certain apathy in that central pairing that stemmed from a misinterpretation of what fueled the original novel. "We never really feel and understand the bond between these two people. That's partly because of Hewitt's inability to project uncertainty and adolescent awkwardness; he comes on so strong and self-confident that David seems like a young man making a bold bid for a good-looking girl, rather than as one-half of a pair of star-crossed adolescent lovers," Ebert explained.
Now that the characters' ages have risen slightly from the Shakespearean tragedy levels of 17 and 15, there's a bit of an overcompensation in cleaning up both the tone and taboo that puts that problem of leads back into focus. "[Gabriella] Wilde and [Alex] Pettyfer are both in their mid-20s. If this were a movie about supermodel-ish teachers having a summer fling in the vicinity of a Georgia high school, the casting might work. But it isn't, and it doesn't," writes Michael Phillips in his Chicago Tribune review. Once again, beauty and confidence impedes timelessness.
When that central draw of two young lovers gets dissolved, what happens to the story? Given the extended emphasis on Hewitt's David in the original, the Variety review was quick to point out that it's difficult to determine his counterpart's effect on the overall story. "Despite top billing, Brooke Shields disappears during entire center section of the film, which reduces extent to which film stands or falls by her work. One can never really tell what her responses to sex are because she’s smiling all the time," it quipped.
While most traces of the novel and the first film have been largely excised for this version, leaving the romantic interest disappearance somewhat incomparable, Laremy Legel touches on a particular trend among modern love stories that "Endless Love" illustrates most plainly. At Film.com, he writes,
"In this theoretical throwback, parents have the ability to physically separate a duo they disapprove of, say their daughter and a boy from 'the wrong side of the tracks,' severing all ties, causing the star-crossed duo to thrash and cry to the heavens on screen. This bedrock narrative foundation, familial love vs. burgeoning romantic love, has been done for hundreds of years, but it’s only in the last two decades or so that storytellers have had to make the disconnect digital as well as physical. It doesn’t make much sense to throw out an occasional, 'Oh, my phone was dead' or yell at a parent, 'well, what did he say?!' when communication is pretty much instant and taken for granted these days."
An insightful plot-based observation, one that, in Legel's estimation, isn't addressed adequately enough in "Endless Love" 2.0 to lend extra credence (and reason for existence) to the update.
The Bonkers Factor:
It seems that Zeffirelli managed to generate some inadvertent appeal for a generation of cable watchers through wringing some lunacy from a story of young love. Even a critical condemnation of the film at the time, published in TimeOut, reads like a blinking neon advertisement for cult classic status. "Pitched at an audience of teenagers, it's of no interest to anyone else, except for a peculiar undertow of incest, inter-generational sex and giant death wishes," it describes, a colorful indictment that the 2014 revamp appears not to have elicited.
Though not for lack of trying. Kate Erbland's Screen Crush review does make the case that this retains some of the extremities of the original. "As over the top as ‘Endless Love’ is (and, goodness, is this thing over the top), Feste occasionally hits on real emotion and believable reactions – it’s just all obscured by a choking hormonal haze and a dizzying series of increasingly terrible decisions." Hormones aren't in short supply in entertainment aimed at a PG-13 crowd (more than one review has made the comparisons to a glossy CW offering), so at the expense of aiming for a broader audience, the cutback in crazy seems to have been this latest attempt's undoing.
ABOUT LAST NIGHT
Combing through reviews of the ellipsis-titled original, there's a general feeling of blandness towards the central couple. (It's hard to imagine now that any role played by the man behind Chris Traeger wouldn't be literally the greatest character in recorded human history.) What really shines through is the dynamic between the secondary couple of Bernie and Joan, played by Belushi/Perkins and, now, Kevin Hart/Regina Hall. Although Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant seem to have handled their side effectively, this film preserves that "Bernie and Joan are the more interesting pairing" sentiment so faithfully, that...well, just look at these review excerpts:
"There are two reasons to see 'About last night . . .,' and their names are Jim Belushi and Elizabeth Perkins. Though they portray Danny's and Debbie's best friends, theirs are anything but sidekick performances. When they're on screen, you sense what a terrific movie this could have been if they had been the leads."
"Two things keep it from going permanently below sea-level, though: Kevin Hart and Regina Hall...The cutting remarks get lobbed between these two with such ferocity that all other parties best get out of the way."
(From Carrie Rickey's Philadelphia Inquirer review and Jen Chaney's write-up for The Dissolve, respectively.) Despite the different changes surrounding them, those two characters still inspire the same sort of enthusiasm, even in written form.
While the 2014 version has gained some respect for fleshing out the interpersonal relationships between the central foursome, one of the features that garnered Zwick and Mamet praise was its specificity of its location. In her review for the LA Times, Sheila Benson described that "Zwick's characters are young, his milieu is specifically Chicago; the world of the beloved neighborhood bar and the Saturday-morning sandlot ball games are his landmarks...Writers DeClue and Kazurinsky have created a recognizable geography for every age; you suspect that 'About Last Night' will set off pangs of identification everywhere." But in an attempt to broaden the perspective for the update, some argue that the sense of time and place has gotten lost in the shuffle. The AV Club's A.A. Dowd writes that "beyond a split-second shot of someone de-friending an ex on Facebook, 'About Last Night' could easily be set 30 years ago."
When describing the Mamet-screen transfer, Dave Kehr had some apprehensions about how truly cinematic the playwright's words and storytelling approach were. Of the finished product, he wrote in the Chicago Reader, "Mamet's poetic banality works well onstage, where there's no sense of a specific, real-world context that would make it seem bloodless or trite; on film, where the sense of reality is all but inevitable, the banality is, well . . . banal. The shocks of recognition are largely absorbed by the standard narrative structure that replaces Mamet's blackouts; the characters, instead of functioning as archetypes, look underwritten, half alive."
But if there's one thing that the champions of the remake can agree on, it's that director Steve Pink and his cast of characters seem to have enjoyed themselves immensely while making this. Kehr's misgivings about form matching content have given way to Steve Macfarlane's endorsement of the livelier approach. Macfarlane concludes his Slant Magazine review saying that "the digital camerawork captures the full length of a moment of intensity with the same adventureness that the game actors reveal. The filmmakers' almost Cassavetes-like emphasis on performance gives the film a spontaneous feeling...Beneath most every woozy rom-com trope available, 'About Last Night' buries an almost admirable human messiness—and it looks and feels like everybody had a great time making it."
Date Movie Effectiveness:
Despite the fact that "About Last Night..." premiered in early July rather than on a more amorous weekend, Gene Siskel argued that the film had value among a certain audience subset. "But that's because 'About Last Night...' is populated with credible human beings," Siskel explained, adding "Place these characters in any city and they'd make it look good. The notion of a good 'date movie' may be outmoded. But for young couples, I can't think of a more entertaining, more provocative American film to see right now than 'About Last Night.'"
Highlighting similar reasons for the story's appeal, Drew McWeeny ends his Hitfix review with a reason why this version might resonate just as much. "It is easy in places, and it's not a reinvention of the genre, but by refusing to play to the typical roadblocks of the genre, the film manages to offer people something honest, and I have no doubt a lot of couples will recognize themselves in the film. 'About Last Night' is a perfectly honorable and charming way to spend Valentine's Day weekend in a movie theater, and the entire cast is working at the very top of their game here to make it as charming as it is," he writes.
So whether you opt for the closer-to-Mamet original or the newest offering (penned by "Bachelorette" director-scribe Leslye Headland), "About Last Night" appears to be the better weekend bet.