More and more films premiere on Video on Demand -- if they don't simply bypass a theatrical release altogether. Because VOD reviews are often scarce and hard to find, Criticwire created VODetails, a recurring column to help you figure out whether a new VOD release is worth your hard-earned dollar. This time we're looking at "Some Velvet Morning," a darkly comic tale of a fractured relationship, not an "Anchorman" DVD special feature about Ron Burgundy's breakfast attire.
The Little Red Riding Hood story has been the basis for a handful of modern film adaptations (lest we forget the Amanda Seyfried vehicle from two short years ago - can you remember the title?). But with “Some Velvet Morning,” it’s now been filtered through the sensibilities of Neil LaBute.
The writer-director-playwright’s latest film outing trades in fairytale spooky forests for a brightly lit, likely-New York town house and a cast list of only two, setting the stage for a scintillating psychological tug-of-war. Beginning with the arrival of Fred (Stanley Tucci) to the cozy abode of a young twentysomething known to some as Velvet (Alice Eve), their interaction is presented in a continuous conversation string over the entire film’s runtime.
Fred is, in many ways, a broken man: he’s just left his wife and his relationship with his son is admittedly frayed at best. As a result, his unannounced arrival at young Velvet’s is no coincidence. We eventually learn that their shared past extends far beyond recent history.
Despite Fred’s desperation to rekindle some sort of spark with his erstwhile flame, there’s a noticeable separation between the pair. Throughout much of our introduction to their relationship, they’re hardly ever framed together. It’s a back-and-forth of assertion and realignment, with both characters seeking to draw the other into their preferred reality.
To maintain momentum for an 80-minute conversation about failed love is a difficult task, even with some choice barbs from Fred along the way. LaBute keeps the action taut by capturing every angle of each character’s indecision. The two have no qualms with exposing those shortcomings in each other, with Fred calling out Velvet’s vagueries (LaBute’s quips about human speech patterns are a joy for anyone who geeks out on semantics) and Velvet quick to highlight Fred’s irritable mood swings.
As the dynamic between Fred and Velvet starts to deepen and include some overt paternal elements, drawing in past histories with a web of other figures, it serves as an intriguing counterpoint to another 2013 offering, “Like Someone in Love.” There, the brimming uncertainty between older man and younger woman of a certain profession gets broken somewhat with the introduction of a third boyfriend character. It’s a testament to LaBute’s writing that the verbal jabbing on display in “Some Velvet Morning” avoids stagnating even with just two actors on display.
And those two actors each handle their charge with impressive range. The charming Stanley-Tuccian veneer of the Fred at the outset eventually gives way to one with a sinister edge that drips with unpredictability. That Tucci can transition between the predatory and sincere without inducing tonal whiplash makes Fred that much more of a captivating half of the proceedings. Early on, there’s a concern that his sparring partner might become a one-note victimized damsel in distress. But there’s a certain way that Velvet weaponizes Fred’s obsessive desire that Alice Eve never allows to be too overt. Even if Velvet can’t physically remove Fred from her home, she proves to be more than a worthy player and a willing participant in this manipulation seesaw.
While the handheld aesthetic of some of the verbal fight scenes might not do much to avoid the "filmed play" tag, this is more of an exercise in observation than a display of visual style. It's a battle that is largely fought with words, with comedy in some of the bleakest and blackest ways possible. The film's precisely calculated conclusion will likely dominate much of the discussion around the effectiveness or value of “Some Velvet Morning” as a whole, but the LaBute-Tucci-Eve trio provides plenty to sift through, even before the film’s final minutes.
In his review for Thompson on Hollywood, Matt Brennan plants the film as one of the better examples of LaBute's frequent thematic returns, even if the ultimate resolution may not sit well with many audience members:
"When Velvet asks Fred what's she done to deserve his ire, he responds with what might be considered LaBute's credo: "Shit happens to people who haven't done anything all the time." To call his brand of drama misanthropic is, perhaps, an understatement. For LaBute's villains, hatred becomes a kind of fetish: often quite literally, they get off on it."
The film's approach to presentation is an inescapable part of any post-viewing discussion, as Alan Zilberman wrote in his Tribeca review for Brightest Young Things:
"LaBute forces his audience to rethink the role performance has in our lives, particularly when it comes to the opposite sex. We pretend way more than we think we do, and LaBute is one of the few filmmakers out there who wants to figure out why."
"The chess game that ensues is nothing if not theatrical, but LaBute knows exactly how to maximize the actors' performances without sitting the camera on a tripod and leaving the room."