Tucci, Eve Trade Bitter Barbs on Unpleasant 'Velvet Morning'

Directed by: Neil LaBute; Runtime: 84 minutes
Grade: C+

If asked to pick out a pair of actors to portray two disagreeably antagonistic ex-lovers at war with one another in the confines of an apartment for an hour and a half, Stanley Tucci and Alice Eve might not be at the top of many people's lists. While Tucci has the disturbing nature of a child murderer under his belt with The Lovely Bones and Eve has her moments of darker manipulation in Crossing Over, their portrayals of inherently likable characters in other mainstream films -- The Hunger Games and Devil Wears Prada for Tucci; Star Trek Into Darkness and She's Out of My League for Eve -- are what typically dominate one's first thoughts when they come to mind. Neil LaBute's Some Velvet Morning offers the chance for Tucci and Eve to push their boundaries through a smaller-scale setting involving the nature of a crumbling marriage and gender power-play, directly centered on the erupting conflict between a freshly-separated lawyer and his hesitant once-flame. While their performances are a testament to their versatility, a strained and unjustifiably provocative script weakens the foundation for their brutal duel of words.

After many years of marriage, Fred (Stanley Tucci) has finally packed up his things and moved out of his house, landing on the doorstep of his mistress, Velvet (Alice Eve). Instead of being excited to see him, however, Velvet seems cautious and distant towards Fred's appearance, which isn't exactly what many would expect of a couple who finally have the freedom to be with one another. That's due in large part to the natural assumptions that Some Velvet Morning allows the audience to arrive at based on the scenario, until the back-and-forth exchanges between Fred and Velvet gradually replaces that conjecture with facts about who they are, what they do, and the nature of their relationship. Hostility fills the air of Velvet's apartment as Fred's disappointment takes over their conversation's tone, leading the story down a grimmer path as accusations and insecurities fly that force Velvet into a state of panic and fear. Whether Velvet led him on or if Fred picked up on mixed signals, or neither, slowly comes into focus.

Some Velvet Morning unravels a bit like a romantic mystery, where a steady stream of information about the truth behind their relationship reveals itself like the rind around an orange being peeled to the pulp. It's unconvincing at first, though, where that intentional awkwardness upon Fred's impromptu arrival drives the audience to scour their interactions to figure out the details, and not in a good way. It sparks questions early on -- Why is she surprised? Why didn't he call in advance? Why is keeping her lunch plans so direly important? -- that are tangentially answered with each layer of conversation, yet we're given so little substance to work with in the beginning that it feels frustratingly formless instead of compelling. Eventually, the film gets over that hump and lures the audience into putting the pieces together once they've got a grasp on Fred and Velvet, but that unease towards the characters at the start works against the film's outlandish twists, involving Velvet's gray-area employment and Fred's son.

As LaBute's film progresses entirely within the walls of Velvet's narrow, multi-floor flat, it veers further away from the initial undertaking of observing an extramarital couple's clear-cut adjustment to the situation following Fred's abandoned marriage. With its added context in tow, Some Velvet Morning taps into claustrophobic bile and gender-driven intimidation, built around this vague four-year jump in time and how Velvet's tendencies have changed -- and stayed the same -- during their separation. Stanley Tucci reaches an elevated, extreme caliber of menace for Fred, where his instinctively agreeable demeanor meshes with a petulant lawyer's bruised ego for unsettling dramatic displays. Alice Eve's melancholy, submissive yet sharp-tongued turn as Velvet responds well to Fred's oppressive presence, if a bit skittish and tolerant. Their extended conversation is incredibly reactionary and theatrical, though, with both actors struggling with the script's gawky fluctuations in harshness, manifesting into a gradient of unpleasant emotion that's too broad for the tone's own good.

Some Velvet Morning gets dominated by constant reactions and vulgar pushed buttons between Fred and Velvet that simply seems like it's trying too hard to instigate, crossing peculiar boundaries in regards to Fred's family and the "how" and "when" behind their relationship. Turns out, once the film reaches its willfully traumatic climax and finally peels the last layer away to reveal the full truth of their hostile relationship, director LaBute deliberately pulls the carpet out from under the audience's expectations and awareness of what the pair means to one another. Fred's acerbic dialogue, Velvet's discomfort upon his arrival, the situation appearing strained and off-kilter... it all takes on a different meaning through the lens of the film's final minutes, and, quite frankly, I'm not sure whether to applaud LaBute for his trickery or to feel cheated and alternatively disturbed by the outcome. The film itself is an unsavory stream of oscillating fury that ultimately ends on a bizarre note, incautiously mixing reassurance towards their characters' integrity with distaste over the roles they've filled in Velvet's apartment over the course of a few hours.

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