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'80s Romances Get Wiser Redos

By being less self-serious, this month’s remakes of ”About Last Night” and ”Endless Love” are sharper and more fun

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In the 1980s, strange as it may seem, the word romantic almost never appeared before the word comedy. Given the winking flippancy of so much ’80s pop culture (Arnold movies, Dynasty, the “Thriller” video), the era, in hindsight, seems made for rom-coms, but the form didn’t really start to proliferate until 1989, the year of When Harry Met Sally… Up until then, ’80s romantic movies tended to be mushy, gauzy, and tearful, and two quintessential cases are About Last Night… (1986) and Endless Love (1981). Both were adapted from hallowed literary properties (a 1974 David Mamet play, a 1979 Scott Spencer novel), and both took those fierce, diamond-bright sources and turned them into something earnest and syrupy. That each film was being remade for our era didn’t sound promising, but the new About Last Night (1 hr., 36 mins., R) and Endless Love (1 hr., 45 mins., PG-13) are highly watchable love stories. They’re less softheaded than the ’80s versions, which speaks to how the culture has toughened up in three decades.

In About Last Night, two couples — one nice, one nasty — come together out of two sets of best friends in L.A. Danny (Michael Ealy) and Debbie (Joy Bryant) are the polite ones: yuppies who eat intimate meals under mood lighting at the kitchen island. It’s clear that they really love each other, but they hold everything up to a microscope and become convinced that their foibles are fatal. They also fall apart with a little help from their friends. Bernie (Kevin Hart) and Joan (Regina Hall) know how to do three things: drink, fight, and have sex. Bernie views commitment with belligerent contempt, and Joan, a dental hygienist, treats love like plaque — as something to be removed. The two spread their toxic belief that romance is an illusion into the hearts of their two pals, who start, almost in spite of themselves, to listen to them. When About Last Night is funny, it’s because of Kevin Hart. He now owns the fastest mouth in movie comedy, and he knows how to employ his high-pitched neo–Chris Tucker street-fury style to express something humane. I wish Ealy and Bryant seemed less like a real couple and more like movie stars, but by the end, the film nails something about contemporary relationships: how they can, and will, get in their own way.

As a novel, Endless Love posed a vital and even dangerous question: If a boy falls in love with a girl, and they have an idyllic romance, and then he isn’t allowed to see her, and he loves her so much that he can’t deal with it, so he stalks her, and burns her house down, and gets sent to a mental institution — does all of that add up to an unstable obsession? Or is that what love really is? The new Endless Love neatly dispenses with the darker side of the novel, yet if it’s less faithful than the Brooke Shields version, it’s a better movie, a solidly engaging faux-’50s romantic melodrama.

David (Alex Pettyfer) and Jade (Gabriella Wilde) have just graduated from high school. He’s a sensitive grease-monkey hunk, and she’s a sheltered rich girl hiding in the bosom of her family. Wilde makes her a delicate Pre-Raphaelite flower — a girl who needs to wake up, and does, when she meets David, who lights her fire. The problem is her father, Hugh (Bruce Greenwood). Jade’s attraction marks the end of Daddy’s control over her, and the bad news is that he isn’t planning to let that go. Greenwood plays Hugh with an elegant, chiseled malevolence that sustains the drama. And Alex Pettyfer knows how to be cool and smolder at the same time — a gift that can take you far. Endless Love gets quainter as it goes along, yet it works as a swoony love story threatened by a basic, cornball oedipal drama. For a Valentine’s Day release, that passes as respectable.

About Last Night: B
Endless Love: B