Dear Miss Manners: Should a boy and girl kill each other on the first date? If so, who should shoot first? In the interest of equality of the sexes, should the guns match in barrel length and caliber? What music should they play during the act? Finally, what are the eschatological implications in the timing--does it matter if the world ends one second before they die or one second after?
--Confused in Toronto
Only God and Miss Manners know the proper answers to Confused in Toronto's questions, and neither is talking. But in the exquisite, calm Canadian film "Last Night," the important thing is that they get asked at all. This small movie is really about a search for an etiquette at the end of the world, and it argues that etiquette matters, even in the last ding-dong of doom.
It's an end-of-the-world movie like no other. First off, it's much better than your average end-of-the-world movie. And second, it's not really that interested in the end of the world as a fact or as a spectacle, but entirely as an idea. No asteroids, comets, earthquakes, Satans or the armies of Hell on the march; in fact, no explanations are given, save that, at the blazing stroke of midnight, it all ends forever.
Amusingly enough, writer-director-star Don McKellar--he wrote "Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould" and "The Red Violin"--says in the press notes that he was asked to make a film about the millennium. But he wasn't exactly sure what the millennium was; he just thought it meant the end of the world. And that's why he made this movie, and that's why the legendary stroke of zero-hundred hours on the first second of the year 00 goes completely unmentioned.
Instead, the movie is interested in small, tender graces--some of them funny, some of them not--under pressure. What nice thing can one person do to help another get through the blinding flash that signifies the short kiss goodbye? Do we hold our grudges to the end, or relent? Do we have a last drink with old pals or sit alone on the roof, listening to Pete Seeger singing "Kum Ba Yah"?
It follows a squad of Torontoans as they go about their business, trying to put bitterness aside and remember what was best about the late, great planet Earth. The answers are heartfelt and possibly not so surprising: family, cool cars, music, wine, sex and, best of all, love. Of course, by the logic of storytelling, in their perambulations, each manages to wander through the lives of several of the others.
Patrick (McKellar) wants to be nice to his family, but he's secretly annoyed that the global self-grief has overwhelmed his own tiny private grief for a dead wife. His idea: Sit on the roof, drink champagne and think about her. Meanwhile Sandra (Sandra Oh), with the two Berettas in her purse, has to get across town to meet her husband; out of anger, the two of them have decided not to let the world kill them but to do it themselves before the world does it for them, if only by a second.
Another fellow gives a concert; he's no good, but what critic will tell him that? Teenagers party like there's no tomorrow, and in fact some of them carry on as if it's the good old days in Seattle, back in early December 1999. Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) decides to have sex with as many beings as possible, ranging from a prostitute (still doing business and, hey, business is booming) to Patrick to his old French teacher (Genevieve Bujold). Meanwhile, the poor virgin Donna (Tracy Wright) is hoping to exit shorn of her burden, while her boss, the gas company executive Duncan (the sublimely creepy director David Cronenberg), is busy on the last day calling customers to thank them for their business and assure them the gas company will stay on station till the end. Behind it all, a deejay spins out the top tunes of all time. And who says they're the top tunes? He does, and who's going to argue? And what would be the point?
The movie counts down by the hour and the minute, admiring those who remain polite, despising those who become crybabies. If somewhere astronauts are heroically planting weapons-grade plutonium, we don't know about it. If missiles have been launched, Z-rays invented, time machines unlimbered, we are not informed. What we are shown is something altogether more interesting: little people dying well, like the men of the Titanic. And the movie gathers astonishing momentum, getting us to care even in the crushing face of extinction.
Last Night (95 minutes, at the Inner Circle) is rated R for nudity and sexual situations.