Monday, January 1, 2007

The Last Kiss

Director: Tony Goldwyn
Starring: Zach Braff, Jacinda Barrett, Rachel Bilson, Casey Affleck, Michael Weston, Eric Christian Olsen, Marley Shelton, Lauren Lee Smith, Blythe Dannner, Tom Wilkinson, Harold Ramis
Running Time: 115 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

There's an agonizing choice and a deep, morally ambiguous dilemma at the center of The Last Kiss. It's so deep I'm not too sure the filmmakers knew what they had. The movie is brutally honest and risks going places most films wouldn't even touch. All the ingredients were there for this to go the distance and stake its claim as one of the year's best and it came closer than you might think. Unfortunately, amateur mistakes are made, and by Oscar winning screenwriter Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash) of all people.

Just when the movie seems poised to let the emotionally moving story take center stage, it pulls back and instead push useless supporting characters we could care less about in our faces. It's a shame because there were actually times during this film where myself and the person I was watching it with actually paused the movie to discuss the moral implications of what the main character was doing. It's not as cut and dry as it first seems. On the surface it appears it's just about a guy cheating on his wife, but it cuts deeper than that. It isn't necessarily clear he's making a big mistake. It's complicated. With all it's flaws, the film is probably still smarter than 90 percent of the junk that's put out there today. It's just by the end I was banging my head against the wall wondering what could have been.

Zach Braff plays Michael, a Wisconsin architect who seemingly has it all as he approaches his 30th birthday. He's got a beautiful girlfriend, Jenna (Poseidon's Jacinda Barett in the film's toughest part) a great job, and good, loyal friends. However, his whole world turns upside down when faced with the news she's pregnant since this is a guy who can't even bring himself to discuss the "M word." He tells her "I'll marry you when you can name five marriages that have lasted more than five years." She can't. When they visit her parents, Stephen and Anna (played exceptionally well by Tom Wilkinson and Blythe Danner) to deliver the big announcement they naturally think they're getting married. When they get the real news dad is thrilled but it awakens all kinds of crazy feelings and behavior in Anna, as she begins to examine her own thirty year marriage, which from her standpoint has been a complete disaster.

You can feel a crisis brewing on the horizon and the wedding of Michael's friend proves to be the catalyst when Michael encounters cute, flirty college student Kim (The O.C.'s Rachel Bilson making her feature film debut). What's interesting about this is although Kim comes on pretty strong and makes her intentions very clear from the get go, she isn't just some homewrecking vixen trying to destroy his relationship, though she is slightly manipulative and knows her power over guys. She gives him plenty of room to say "no" if he wants to but knows he can't because she senses he isn't completely happy. We sense it too. Something's missing. "Everything feels pretty planned out. There's no more surprises," he confesses honestly. As he closes in on thirty quickly this could be his last shot. He's scared and he gives in to temptation. Is this wrong? Morally most definitely, But is he making the wrong decision? This would be much easier if his girlfriend was a hen pecking ball and chain but she's not. She's fantastic, if a little too predictable, so it's almost unbearable for the viewer to sit back and watch him do this to her. This is what I mean when I say Jacinda Barrett has the toughest role in the film as Jenna. That part, in the wrong hands and not played perfectly with subtle nuances, would have caused the film to collapse. Too likable and Michael looks like a complete dirt bag for cheating on her. Too clingy and we don't blame him for cheating. She finds just the right balance and her performance is easily the best in the film.

Making this even tougher is that we get the impression if the two women ever met they'd get along great because they're actually quite a bit alike. In the looks department they're almost dead even with Kim having only maybe a slight edge. This reminds me of the urban legend that guys almost always cheat with a woman who's similar to the one they're with. That just may be true. In Michael's defense, who wants their whole life planned out for them? No matter how great his girlfriend is he's going to have to grow up and become a husband and a father...for the rest of his life. If that's not enough to send any guy flying into another woman's bed I don't know what is. This may be a desperate attempt to recapture his youth (one scene with him sneaking behind the trees waiting for Kim on campus looks particularly pathetic), but it's coming from an honest place. There are no responsibilities or strings attached with Kim, which has to count for something.

In some really smart writing, Michael's best friend Chris (Casey Affleck) is put into the unenviable position of helping him cover up the affair, although by this point it couldn't technically be considered one yet. What he does I won't give away, but let's just say it raises all sorts of conversations when the film's over as to what a true friend really is and the real definition of loyalty. When Jenna does eventually uncover it, what results is the most emotionally powerful scene I can remember seeing in a feature film this year. Michael has other friends struggling with relationship issues too and that unfortunately ends up being a major problem for the movie and sends the smart writing down the toilet.

Chris' wife Lisa (Lauren Lee Smith) just had a baby, is emotionally unstable and blames Chris for all of life's problem's. He's contemplating leaving her. Another friend, Izzy (an over the top Michael Weston) wants to quit his family career in the cheese business and is pretty much stalking his high school sweetheart, Arianna (Marley Shelton). Then there's Kenny (Eric Christian Olsen), a care free soul who's spending most of his free time having sex in many different positions and locations with a girl he just met at the wedding. When she suggests he meet her parents he freaks and plans to take a road trip in a van to South America with the guys. How four guys can take a road trip in a van from Wisconsin to South America is a question left unanswered. All of these characters seem like they were just thrown in the screenplay by Haggis to reinforce the idea of commitment phobia. None of them are there long enough for us to care about them, yet they're in it just enough to take away from the intriguing story at the center and annoy the hell out of us.

At one point the movie cuts away from an emotionally resonant scene with Michael and Jenna to show Kenny and his new girlfriend from the wedding spread eagle and naked, having wild sex on the living room floor. What's the purpose of this? This isn't Wedding Crashers. It has nothing to do with anything. This movie was adapted from the 2001 Italian film L'ultimo bacio so I'm assuming all of these characters were in that film in some form or another. If they were, creative license should have invoked and they should have all been taken out for the American remake. If they really wanted this movie to be about a bunch of guys facing an existential crisis as they approach thirty then they should have gone all the way and made that movie, not just lightly sprinkled the screenplay with underdeveloped characters in at their convenience. If they wanted to make this completely about Michael's story, which they probably should have, then there's no place for all this other nonsense. They should have made a choice. The presence of all these minor characters struggling with their relationship problems makes this project feel like a made for TV movie at times.

Of all the supporting characters, only two strike a real cord and directly relate to the central storyline. Those are Jenna's parents and Wilkinson and Danner bring a quite dignity to the roles that just works outstandingly. Wilkinson is kind of playing a variation on his character from In the Bedroom in that on the surface he appears cold to his wife, sarcastic and uncaring while the circumstances of his life situation force something deeper to come to the surface. Danner as Anna, frustrated with the lack of communication in her marriage, forces that something to come out of him in a tour de force performance that never goes too far over the top. She must also come to grips with an affair she had with a college professor (the great Harold Ramis, brilliantly cast against type as a ladies man), which she flaunts in Stephen's face. This all provides a nice counter balance to Michael's dilemma. After all, if he stays with Jenna they could end up exactly like them. This is the only supporting story that not only works, but adds to the themes of the film.

Interestingly enough, director Tony Goldwyn, who's best known as an actor (he was the villain in Ghost and played the creepy college counselor who hit on Katie Holmes in Abandon) states on the DVD interview the importance of casting the roles of Michael's friends. Why? Izzy seems mentally unstable and obsessive, the character of Chris' wife is a complete bitch, and I won't even get into Kenny and his sexual gymnastics partner from the wedding. All of this would be forgivable if it it didn't happen at the expense of the powerful dilemma at the heart of the movie and the character of Rachel Bilson's Kim. Just when we want to learn more about her all these morons take center stage and the movie discards her like a piece of trash, even filming a scene that really makes her look immature, stupid and even stalkerish. In a way, the movie ends up treating her worse than Michael eventually does. It's too bad because Bilson's performance is actually spot on for a girl her age in that situation.

Goldwyn enlightens us on all the details of Kim's life on the DVD's special features, letting us know her likes, dislikes, dreams and aspirations. It would be nice if we found this out in the movie. The strong central conflict would have been even stronger and we would have viewed Michael's decision as being tougher. I couldn't figure out if they did this because they didn't have enough faith in Bilson as an actress to give her more important scenes or they overestimated her and thought she could just convey all these emotions through her natural charm and ability. This is particularly problematic when Michael and Kim first meet at the wedding. Rachel Bilson is beautiful and likable I have absolutely no problem believing any guy would fall instantly in love with her the second they see her, but it would have nice if they didn't have her just throw herself at him in two seconds. They aren't randomly introduced or slowly get to know each other through casual conversation, she just decides this average looking guy who's ten years older than her is the guy of her dreams. It kind of makes her look like a desperate seductress and I don't think that's what the movie was going for. The one conversation they have, in a tree house, is a good one and they should have had more of those. I will admit the fact that I ended up caring that much about the character proves the movie must have done something right with her.

Luckily toward the end of the film the focus shifts back to the conflict between Michael and Jenna and the revelation of what he's done. He commits himself to making a choice and what happens at the end of the film is so surprising and I thought so smart. When Jenna's parents find out what he's done to her their reaction to isn't what you'd expect and it leads to the most interesting conversation of the film between Michael and Tom Wilkinson's Stephen. You think you have a good idea how he'll treat this loser who just destroyed his daughter’s life, but what happens ends up being smarter and far more satisfying.

I always thought the key to a successful ending of a film is if I'm left wondering and caring what happens to the characters after the movie is over. I did here. There has to be some degree of closure, but not too much. Issues are messy and aren't patched up nicely in real life so why should they be in a movie? Especially one with an issue that cuts as deep as this. I'm sure they'll be many who will try to compare this film to Zach Braff's 2004 cult classic, Garden State. That's not fair since Braff wrote, acted and directed that film whereas he just acts in this one. He does a fine job here as he really does have sort of an everyman quality that's relatable to the viewer and works well for the part of Michael.

After the incredible success of the Garden State soundtrack, Braff was asked to compile the soundtrack to this film and it's quite good as well featuring music from Coldplay, Snow Patrol, Ray Lamontagne, Aimee Mann, Athlete, Fiona Apple, Amos Lee and others. Garden State was pretty much hailed as a masterpiece. I thought it was good, not great. This would fall into a similar category but it's worth mentioning that in his last two film outings Braff has come very close to being in a great movie. More notably, he starred in two films that have something important to say about life and leave you thinking and feeling for a while after it's over. Garden State knew what it was about though, and stuck with it the whole time without adding needless distractions. I'm starting to wonder if this film would have been better had Braff written and directed it himself. The Last Kiss may be messy, but at least it's never uninteresting.

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