Stanley Tucci doesn't receive nearly enough credit for being sexy as hell. Unconventionally handsome, a craftsman of the second fiddle, he's the thinking man's fantasy of middle age. But in Neil LaBute's surprising two-hander "Some Velvet Morning" (December 13) the allure is twisted, and Tucci elicits another variety of attraction: the hint of menace.
From the moment Fred (Tucci) appears unannounced on his old flame Velvet's (Alice Eve) Brooklyn doorstep, the actor abandons the warmth of his best-known performances ("Big Night," "The Devil Wears Prada," "Julie & Julia") for the chill of the tacit threat. A thatch of scruff shadowing his chin, the top button of his white dress shirt undone, he leans back in his seat and spreads his legs, as though it were an invitation. It's this intimation of the unsavory that propels LaBute's spare, real-time drama, and ultimately what makes it so tricky to grasp. "Some Velvet Morning" is 83 minutes of sex on a slow boil, always half way to bubbling over.
LaBute, a master of the slow reveal, allows the film to wend its way into your attention. As the relationship postmortem proceeds, each new scrap of information destabilizes what we thought we knew, until at last emerges the outlines of a doomed affair. What began with a note in his pocket, Velvet's search for clients among the fathers of her undergraduate peers, soon became a forbidden romance -- he was married, she was seeing his son -- and, on Fred's part, a dangerous infatuation. When the relationship ended she extracted from him a promise to stay away, and "Some Velvet Morning" tracks the consequences of him breaking it.
As has been true of LaBute's work since his emergence as a playwright and filmmaker of the battle between the sexes, "Some Velvet Morning" accrues increasing evidence of the human capacity for cruelty. 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.
Where "Some Velvet Morning" differs is in the distribution of power. Eve, less showy than Tucci but equally effective, plays Velvet as a canny operator, reading Fred's caprices and responding in kind. In satisfying contrast to LaBute's bleakest work ("In the Company of Men," "The Shape of Things"), both parties are in on the game, and it's in the moments that Fred's crass, aggressive demands come up against Velvet's dissembling, half-finished sentences that the film is most fully alive.
For once there are no dupes -- except, perhaps, the viewer. In quick succession "Some Velvet Morning" fulfills and then wholly upends every expectation conjured by its parry and thrust, by LaBute's filmography, by the genre itself. Whether you think the shock cheap and miserly or the imaginative mark of a newfound playfulness probably depends on your view of the director's sexual politics. Even now, with some distance, the denouement remains slippery, as strange and vaguely menacing as the relationship it transforms. But considering LaBute's recent critical and commercial struggles, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, turnabout is fair play.
"Some Velvet Morning," which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and recently screened at the New Orleans Film Festival, arrives on VOD December 10 and in select theaters December 13.