Film Review: Some Velvet Morning

The Neil LaBute movie for people who hate Neil LaBute movies—a tightly packed, deviously well-played two-person drama about the illusions of both love and drama.

Sort of "My Dinner with Christian Grey," playwright Neil LaBute's two-person, single-location, real-time dialogue between a high-end hooker and a john named Fred captures the feel and rhythm of awkwardness between former lovers while escalating captivatingly and turning things around at the end. While LaBute, not unreasonably, has taken heat for what some critics label the misogyny of works such as the plays and subsequent films In the Company of Men and The Shape of Things, the title character here appears to be a woman of great emotional strength nonetheless being dominated by initially unspoken and later overt threats of violence by a physically stronger man. We fear for her. And unlike in some of LaBute’s other work, Some Velvet Morning isn't played as black comedy or otherwise excusing men's bad behavior. It's the LaBute film for people who hate LaBute films.

At a nice townhouse one morning, Fred (Stanley Tucci), a lawyer, arrives with suitcases and the news that he's finally left his wife. The home's owner, a pretty and self-possessed blonde woman (Alice Eve) whose name we never learn but whom Fred calls Velvet, is taken aback—it's been four years since they broke up and he's stayed away from her as promised except for the odd phone call or e-mail and one birthday gift—but lets him in.

What follows is a pas de deux of ex-lovers in uncertain territory, made complicated by the fact she's a prostitute. "Velvet" may not be who she is anymore, but she still makes the occasional five-hundred for a "lunch." Also complicating things is that she has both actual lunch and occasional "lunch" with Fred's married son, Chris. Adding tension in a very playwright-ish way are Velvet's frequent reminders that she has to go out soon—to see friends, or maybe it's to go shopping, or maybe it's to have "lunch" or maybe it's to meet Chris. She says she wants Fred to leave, but she knows she can't force him; soon it's clear he isn't going to let her leave the house, though each tiptoes around the implied threat as if avoidance were a lifeline—his, to civility ("I've always done the right thing, the decent thing," he tells her and wants to believe, though he was cheating on his wife), and hers, to survival.

The Oxford-educated British actress Eve has hinted at fully developed emotional reserves with her work in such silly or populist American fare as She's Out of My League (2010), Men in Black 3 (2012), Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) and, most awfully, through no fault of her own, four episodes of the series “Entourage,” but she's never had the opportunity to truly go all-out, at least stateside, as she does here. Whether Velvet is in control, has lost control, or believes she has control, there's not a false moment—right down to her enigmatic final expression—and given the eventual course of the story that's an accomplishment of Streepian proportions. It's also vanity-free: Even as the barefoot Velvet makes a simple red frock look as if it's about to burst into flame, one close-up after reaching a point where she's both tired of this and starting to hold panic at bay shows worry lines on her forehead and bags under her eyes. Fred's fantasy Velvet is gone, or so it appears. Tucci, masterful as always, pulls off an unexpected transformation M. Night Shyamalan would have been proud of.

And give LaBute points as a film director. Many playwrights have tried, and for every David Mamet (House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, State and Main), there are a more than a few John Patrick Shanleys (Joe Versus the Volcano). Shot entirely in an actual Brooklyn townhouse, cramped stairs and all, Some Velvet Morning plays spaciously enough to fit emotions for two stories. See the movie and you'll realize how clever that last sentence was.

One thing, though: Dedicating it to August Strindberg? Really? That doesn't strike you as a tad pretentious? I mean, hey, it's cool. I'm dedicating this review to George Bernard Shaw.