By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
If this was December, Kevin Hart might be in the Oscar mix, he's that good in About Last Night. Explosively good, a comedy nova who won't shut up and never should. Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs. good, when raw talent meets purpose and the course of movies shifts.
Until now, what Hart said in movies hasn't been as funny as how he said it: peppering movies to pugnacious effect, a little man talking big, brash and dirty. Nothing that different from what he does in About Last Night except this material has the imprint of profanity's maestro David Mamet, first in his play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, and now two movie adaptations diluting his salty words and themes, the newest by director Steve Pink less so.
Hart's role as Bernie Litko suits the comedian's style; an unfiltered, unfettered male stereotype, seducing and demeaning women, leaving no edgewise for anyone else's words to get in. As played by James Belushi in 1986's About Last Night, Bernie was a Windy City lug who got lucky. In Hart's hands (and motor-mouth), Bernie is a smoother operator, all libido in perpetual motion. Hart's improvisational gifts aren't required as usual to create comedy, just embellish Mamet's template for a wider audience. He makes smart choices, and a gleam in his eyes suggests he knows it.
Bernie is best friends with Danny, played by Michael Ealy who, like Rob Lowe before him, is chiefly easy on the eyes. Bernie is sex buddies with Joan (Regina Hall), a spitfire giving him more than he can handle in and out of bed. They drag Danny and Joan's roommate Debbie (Joy Bryant) to dinner and wind up drunk on love in the ladies room. Danny and Debbie hook up on what wasn't even their first date, and parallel wars between the sexes begin.
It's a familiar progression of firsts for Danny and Debbie: first morning after, first argument, first "I love you." Staying over one night becomes a week and then his offer of a drawer where she can keep stuff. "A whole drawer?" Debbie asks with charming sarcasm. Then he gives her keys to his place. Then a dog. Ealy and Bryant make an attractive couple, and at certain angles she resembles young Demi Moore, with the same vivacious beauty. This relationship is when About Last Night feels dated, despite adding smart phones and home pregnancy tests. Mamet's honesty about 1970s relationships, and the '86 version's watering down, were cutting edge in their days but not now. By the time Danny's previous lover (Paula Patton) returns to tempt him, we're encroaching on sitcom turf, albeit a very sexy sitcom.
The combustible nature of Bernie and Joan's relationship, and the performances of Hart and Hall, keep About Last Night from getting too sentimental about romantic questions being asked. They're the devil horns on Cupid's forehead, keeping it nasty and real. Both actors are fearless physical comedians, turning sexual positions into punchlines (with a chicken mask Mamet never intended, I'm sure). Their banter is brutally unprintable, and often drowned out by laughter from a line before.
Hart and Hall deserve a sequel or spinoff. Any decision on that will be made in part by producer Will Packer, a St. Petersburg product who over the past 14 years shepherded a number of profitable movies (Think Like a Man, Stomp the Yard) primarily aimed at black audiences, topped by the recent Ride Along, a $100+ million grosser also starring Hart.
About Last Night is another strong crossover opportunity for Packer, with its Valentine's Day opening, nostalgic curiosity for '80s kids, and Hart's presence for anyone he ever made laugh. The man is that good.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.