Tuesday, September 26, 2006

"The Last Kiss," dir. Tony Goldwyn (Oklahoma Gazette)

People Behaving Badly

You probably don’t need a movie to know that commitment can be a scary concept, but a motion picture as searing and insightful as “The Last Kiss” is well worth seeing. The film is populated with characters who are case studies in troubled relationships, but their problems and how they cope with them rarely feel clichéd.

Zach Braff stars as Michael, a 29-year-old architect who launches into a premature midlife crisis when his girlfriend Jenna (Jacinda Barrett) announces she is pregnant. Doubting that he is ready for marriage -- much less parenthood -- Michael is terrified that his youth is over.

It doesn’t help that his best friends are in relationship meltdowns. Chris (Casey Affleck) is in a marriage strained by the advent of a baby, while Izzy (Michael Weston) is reeling from being dumped by his girlfriend. The only seemingly happy one, Kenny (Eric Christian Olsen), is firmly entrenched in a succession of one-night stands. The most cautionary tale for Michael might be Jenna’s parents, Stephen and Anna (Tom Wilkinson and Blythe Danner), whose 30-year marriage has dissolved into bitterness and indifference.

The surfeit of misery pushes Michael into selfishness and stupidity. When he meets pretty college student Kim (Rachel Bilson) at a wedding, he knows no good can come from their flirtation -- but he doesn’t stop himself.

An English-language remake of a 2001 Italian film, “L’ultimo bacio,” “The Last Kiss” has a startlingly clear-eyed view of relationships. The men and women in the movie’s orbit are imperfect people given to bad choices. Michael appears to have it all – a good job, loving girlfriend, promising future -- but he can’t shake off a paralyzing fear of commitment. Jenna’s parents are lugging an airport’s worth of emotional baggage. Stephen, a therapist by profession, has little patience or empathy left over for his unhappy (and unfaithful) wife.

The picture is written by Paul Haggis, who directed and co-wrote the Oscar-winning “Crash,” and he employs a similar approach here, presenting a cross-section of characters plagued by selfishness, pettiness and casual cruelty -- but all of whom are too three-dimensional not to elicit sympathy.

The screenplay’s honesty is augmented by a superb cast. Danner and Wilkinson are excellent, but Barrett’s performance is riveting. Also first-rate is Bilson, who projects a vulnerability that keeps Kim from being a one-note vixen. If there’s a weak spot, it is Braff, but he still earns points for bucking the nice-guy persona he has built with TV’s “Scrubs.”

“The Last Kiss” is hardly without flaws. The filmmakers go to considerable lengths to follow the story threads of Michael’s buddies, but appear to lose interest about two-thirds into the flick. Moreover, director Tony Goldwyn, despite an obvious skill with actors, can be uneven with the mechanics of tone and pace.

But why quibble? It is rare to come across a movie that rings with such authenticity that it challenges our expectations of what its characters will do next. If that isn’t a sign of genius, I don’t know what is.


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