Game of Blather: "Some Velvet Morning" a lean, mean, talky bait and switch

Some Velvet Morning (2013)
83 min., not rated (but equivalent to an R).

Returning to his acerbic, misanthropic interpersonal turf of 1997's "In the Company of Men" and 1998's "Your Friends & Neighbors" after a wonky, work-for-hire career pathhis boneheaded, camptastic 2006 remake of "The Wicker Man," 2008's watchable "Lakeview Terrace," and his broad American remake of "Death at a Funeral"—director Neil LaBute works from an original solo script. In a film that's much closer to the playwright's roots, "Some Velvet Morning" is a language-oriented film about gender relations and power plays that LaBute was actually born to make and gives equal opportunity to both man and woman. Here, it's just Stanley Tucci and Alice Eve performing a bitingly verbal and unsettlingly physical duet for 83 minutes in a privately shot, real-time war of chitchat.

Finally, Tucci and Eve get the lead roles they deserve, and what better way to receive that rare opportunity than from the direction of Mr. LaBute, who allows them to tear into their roles. Tucci plays Fred, a lawyer who, after twenty-four years of marriage with his wife in Maryland, shows up at the door of a three-story brownstone in Brooklyn. It's the home of his mistress, British art student Velvet (the lovely, blonde Eve). She's less than thrilled to see him after four years when they first started their love affair. Velvet is about to leave to meet someone for lunch, but the two rehash resentments in their history and what went wrong in their relationship, constantly turning the tables on the other and fighting for the last word. Who will be left holding the cards?

A piece of bait-and-switch storytelling, "Some Velvet Morning" begins as an extramarital-affair drama with verbal abuse, but it's really a play on film and an acting exercise centered on the spoken word. We learn solely about these two characters through the volatility and corrosion of their conversation, which ranges from awkward and crude to curt and vitriolic, and the power shifts are constantly changing, too. Velvet is never just a victim, as one might assume, and Fred is never just the smarmy antagonist. They have a give-and-take and keep reversing roles, and that's what's so interesting to watch. Of course, like most plays on film (i.e. Roman Polanski's "Carnage"), the characters keep attempting to leave the apartment but it never happens. LaBute gives them plenty of room to roam their three-floor space and shoots much of the film in single takes, lending a feeling that we're eavesdropping on these two squabbling. Cinematographer Rogier Stoffer also opens up the one apartment setting with enough natural light streaming in to lessen the claustrophobia of the talking chamber.

Sexually and intellectually charged tension percolates throughout a terse 83 minutes, which is just enough time before it'd get too stuffy, and then "Some Velvet Morning" makes a cleverly surprising flip in the last five minutes. It was something else all along. At once, it's brutal and shocking, as well as manipulative. Whether the punchline is seen as a seamless twist that brings new context or an enraging trick one will be impressed by or nonplussed about is left up for the viewer to decide. It's kind of a cruel joke, and that LaBute takes a ballsy gambit is admirable. Devious and barbed, "Some Velvet Morning" is a deliciously talky two-hander that doesn't add up to a lot, but immediately afterward, it gives the viewer something to talk about in an indoor voice.

Grade: B -