Writer-director Neil LaBute’s latest prolonged exercise in resentful gender stalemating concerns a difficult few hours in the lives of an attorney, Fred (Stanley Tucci), and a prostitute who calls herself Velvet (Alice Eve). Fred’s an abusive lout given to dressing up his prejudices and quasi-psychopathic tendencies in over-heated rationalizations that wouldn’t cut the mustard in anyone’s Mamet 101 classroom, while Velvet indulges his rants for reasons that aren’t clear until the ending. Fred claims he loves Velvet and insists that she should unquestioningly reciprocate those feelings because she’s a whore who tricked him, while Velvet believes that…well, no one cares what Velvet thinks, because she has the misfortune of being a woman in a LaBute production.
To watch Some Velvet Morning is to wonder once again why LaBute was ever taken seriously as a so-called dramatist of the gulf between the sexes. In LaBute’s world it’s always the same: Men are forced into assuming the role of aggressor because the only other option afforded to them by duplicitous women is to keel over as a spiritually castrated patsy. Fred storms into Velvet’s home one morning, and proceeds to lecture her for being a prostitute, which he implies is a profession that’s dubious and given to hoodwinking guys like him. It doesn’t occur to Fred that Velvet is running a business governed by clearly stated rules of conduct, just as it doesn’t occur to him that he’s the one who’s threatening and twisting social contexts to suit his own manipulative whims.
The film might have worked if Fred’s cluelessness were meant to be ironic, and if there were a sense of real give and take between the characters (as there was in the similarly themed Two Girls and a Guy), but Some Velvet Morning is a rigged game—another La Bute monologue disguised as a dialogue. Superficially, Fred is acknowledged to be off-putting, and LaBute covers both his moral and his aesthetic bases by having the character admit that he’s redundant and tiresome, but the film’s sympathies are really subtly predisposed toward him. Fred’s a chic, well-groomed, attractive dude, a real man’s man, and Velvet is presented to us to as a cold, haughty princess with porcelain white skin that’s rendered all the whiter by the contrast of the short-short red dress and matching red lipstick she wears; she’s consciously made to resemble the stereotype of the kind of woman an ogre might call a “frigid bitch” because she might not fall for a crude come-on. Her rebukes to Fred, when they arrive at all, are also deliberately vague and intended to imply that she secretly understands the subterranean truths of his caveman rationale.
There’s also a twist at the end, and it’s unforgivably cowardly. For most of the film, we’ve watched a domestic-abuse situation that eventually escalates to rape, only to understand, at the last minute, that things are not as they seem, and that the invasive nastiness that pervades the film can be explained away with a meta gesture that testifies to the usual ever-shifting, unknowable truths between men and women. But LaBute can’t even leave it there, as there’s a brief implication at the very end that Velvet has real feelings for her john, and so she’s really the one at someone’s mercy. Beneath all this ugliness and hypocritical hand-wringing, all this spare, austere misery, beats the heart of a pretty regular hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold fantasy that doesn’t even at least have the manners to invite you to get off.