Don McKellar has been quickly acquiring a reputation as the Orson Welles of new Canadian cinema, what with his work as a writer (Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, The Red Violin), actor (eXistenZ, The Red Violin), and now the triple-threat: writer-actor-director. With Last Night, McKellar even enjoys his cachet by casting Canada's most famous auteur, David Cronenberg, in a supporting part. (In exchange, Cronenberg cast McKellar in eXistenZ.)

McKellar's feature directorial debut envisions how several individuals would spend their last hours on Earth, knowing that the world is coming to an end. Patrick (McKellar) tries to reconnect with his family for a bogus Christmas dinner, then decides to spend his remaining time alone. Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) tries to have sex with everyone, including his former French teacher (Genevieve Bujold). A gas company employee (Cronenberg) calls each of his customers to assure them they will receive service right to the end. And Sandra (Sandra Oh) tries hopelessly to cross town to spend her last night with her husband.

These and the other characters in McKellar's highly schematic screenplay appear beyond panic and despair. Their primary disposition is simple resignation, although Sandra occasionally shows frustration in her tragicomic effort to get home. Last Night utilizes the Independence Day and Deep Impact formula of focusing on specific characters, but completely dispenses with pseudo-scientific exposition. McKellar makes no attempt to explain the cataclysmic event to come, but he implies it has been widely known for some time.

As the plot progresses, the characters find connections with one another (some surprising and unexpected), which leads to McKellar's overemphatic message about the need for love, compassion and alliance. In particular, Patrick and Sandra rediscover the need to belong to humanity-and each other-before it's too late. (For an 'end of the world' movie, Last Night is very upbeat.)

Unfortunately, McKellar's vision of apocalypse is somewhat limited, both thematically and stylistically. The fact that the story is set entirely in an English-speaking Canadian city reduces the scope of the event, a few spotty and peripheral crowd scenes notwithstanding, and even McKellar's attempts at suggesting an enveloping chaos reveal a dramatist's orderly sensibility. Moreover, not all the main characters are given the same privileging: While McKellar's Patrick drones on about his feelings, many of the women (a mousy secretary in the gas company, the former teacher, and a prostitute, the only black character) are defined solely by their sexual desires and have little to say. The few elderly characters (including a jogger played by performance artist Jackie Burroughs) appear as mere flakes.

At least Last Night is less arty and pretentious than the films McKellar wrote for fellow Canadian wunderkind, Fran‡ois Girard (Thirty Two Short Films and The Red Violin). But McKellar also sacrifices artistic style by theatrically staging his lengthy and talky set-pieces in drab, colorless settings. For this reason, perhaps, whenever the characters 'kick off their heels' or expose their inner selves, the performances remain mannered and self-conscious.

Seemingly freed in the exterior scenes, McKellar shows more cinematic promise, particularly during some of Sandra's cross-town odyssey, which evokes the images of metropolitan alienation from Antonioni's middle-period work (e.g., La Notte and L'Eclipse). The highlight of the film comes at the outset, as Sandra shops for her last romantic dinner, in a well-edited title sequence set to the Fifth Dimension song, 'Last Night I Didn't Get to Sleep at All.' (Other solid-gold hits play throughout the story as a motif, but are used less effectively.)

Ultimately, Last Night employs an intriguing 'what if' scenario and mines a few authentic moments, but is hampered by the narrow imagination of its young creator.

--Eric Monder