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Adulthood creeps in on The Last Kiss

by Glen Baity

Meet Michael.

At 29, Michael (Zach Braff) is an architect, which is, I think we all can agree, a perfectly enviable job for a 29-year-old to have.

What’s more, he has a beautiful girlfriend, a nice duplex in a quiet, lovely neighborhood, a close-knit group of lifelong friends and a baby girl on the way.

Does he fell lucky? C’mon, why would he? No, in Michael’s world, all his good fortune adds up to a stark prospect: that, in his words, “there are no more surprises.”

Michael’s looming decision, to be or not to be an Adult, is the driving force behind The Last Kiss. Sure, that sounds nails-on-a-chalkboard annoying, but the reality is that the film is a competent, surprising and often challenging slice of miserable life.

Braff’s last movie, Garden State, dealt with similar themes of aimlessness and indecision, albeit with a much dreamier veneer and lower stakes. The Last Kiss, for lack of a better description, is Garden State all grown up in the real world, after the guy has gotten the girl and moved on to his next quarter-life crisis. And it’s a doozy by comparison.

The film, directed by Tony Goldwyn, is based on the 2001 Italian film L’Ultimo Bacio. It deals with some weighty life issues, but it views them in the deceptively simple context of a singular choice: monogamy and Family or Freewheelin’ Bachlorhood, and with it the specter of eternal youth?

The Last Kiss dissects that choice through the eyes of several well-realized characters, but its central focus is Michael’s relationship with Jenna (Jacinda Barrett). The couple seems headed for disaster when Michael, in a fit of remarkably poor judgement, has an affair with vivacious college sophomore Kim (“The OC”‘s Rachel Bilson), who wins Michael’s heart (which is apparently not all that hard to do) by observing that he’s having second thoughts about the way his life is heading.

“Everyone I know is having a crisis,” says the 19-year-old, and I’m sure both of them believe it.

The Last Kiss, on one level, is a grass-is-always-greener parable older than the hills, as Michael becomes aware of the damage he’s caused and sees all the more clearly what he stands to lose by surreptitiously courting someone who lives in a dorm room.

If the film stopped there, it would be forgettable at best. But The Last Kiss isn’t a bad movie, or a dumb one, even if more than one of its characters are.

Screenwriter Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby) weaves Michael and Jenna’s troubles into the stories of several other relationships in various states of decay. Chris (Casey Affleck, in another great supporting role), is contemplating leaving the mother of his newborn child; Izzy (Michael Weston) is down and out after being rejected by his high school sweetheart after more than 10 years; and Jenna’s parents (Tom Wilkenson and Blythe Danner), after 30 years of what seems to be compulsory companionship, are on the brink of a nasty split.

It’s this last relationship that really elevates the film, suggesting The Last Kiss as something besides another tired meditation on twenty-something moodiness. Wilkenson and Danner are both excellent in their roles, though for some reason the film, which constantly teeters on the edge of melodrama, does so most often during their scenes.

The film, however, is ultimately eloquent in its examination of relationships and the fears and motivations that are so often entrenched in them, even if it makes no statement that hasn’t been made before. Yes, people sometimes marry for the wrong reasons. Yes, even functional relationships are fragile things that can crumble if not handled with extreme care. Yes, good people sometimes do horrible things to one another for reasons neither can adequately explain.

Nevertheless, those same observations have been made far less effectively in films not half as good as this one, so I’m reluctant to penalize The Last Kiss for simply not being first up to bat. For its occasional, if somewhat unavoidable clichés (Kim, the Other Woman, is shocked – shocked – at Michael’s reluctance to abandon his relationship and be with her), The Last Kiss takes some interesting twists and turns, and the ending, bleak as it is in places, is moving and authentic.

Strange as it seems, the film shares some tonal and thematic elements with The Break-Up, which I trashed a few months ago for being a witless and unrelenting drag. Since they deal with superficially similar subject matter, I think it bears mentioning that The Last Kiss does virtually everything right that that film did wrong: It approaches its characters with genuine compassion, keeps the screwball comedy at bay, and doesn’t patronize its audience. This is a well-constructed, well-acted and satisfying drama about human connection, and while it doesn’t break any new ground, it treads wisely where it chooses to go.

Want to trash Glen Baity for being a witless and unrelenting drag? Do so when you send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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