Friday, September 15, 2006

"The Last Kiss:" Confused at 30, fearing commitment

What to say about "The Last Kiss," the new film by director Tony Goldwyn?

Well, your first tendency may be to chalk this story up to a somewhat cliched "Guy turning 30 who doesn't want to grow up" movie.

And, to an extent, that's what it is, complete with crude dialogue, childish "let's just get away from this" moments and sophomoric scenes that seem left over from an unused reel from "Wedding Crashers."

But there's something deeper at work here, something dark and almost myth busting, in keeping with screenwriter Paul Haggis' other fine works, including "Million Dollar Baby" and "Crash." This is a film that suggests that no matter what you've always been taught or led to believe, relationships are tough, love may be a lie and there's a whole lot more confusing gray in this life than there is simple black and white.

Whew. Let's pause to catch our breath.

OK, here's the deal. Michael (Zach Braff) is a soon-to-be 30-year-old who seems to have it all going for him. He's got a good job, a beautiful girlfriend named Jenna (Jacinda Barrett) and a baby on the way.

But Michael isn't ready for life behind the proverbial picket fence. He watches one friend's marriage collapse under the pressures of parenthood. He sees another pal lose his mind over a woman who isn't coming back. He even sees Jenna's pain as her parents' 30-year-old marriage heads toward heartache.

And then he sees Kim (Rachel Bilson). She's beautiful, stunningly so, young, and full of life. She catches his eye at a friend's wedding. She comes on pretty strong. He says he has to get back to his friends. She leaves him with a peck on the cheek and a promise of a future rendezvous.

One by one, Michael's friends unravel around him. He, too, isn't sure if he's ready for commitment, to the point that he and Jenna exchange words.

He calls Kim. She's going to a party Friday night. No problem, right? Tell Jenna a white lie. No one will ever know.

Guess what happens next...

It's hard to like Michael. His Peter Pan act wears thin. One can see why he's initially attracted to Kim. One can't understand why he'd ever stray from Jenna, the only character in this film who seems to have it together.

But let's not get into simple moralizing. Life is complicated and people do indeed make mistakes. His alienation feels genuine, even familiar. But even when filled with remorse, Michael is a hard character to root for.

When asked to account for his actions, all Michael can manage to say is, "I'm an asshole."

Uhh, yeah.

Braff's performance is believable, if a bit stilted. Bilson is photogenic to the point of distraction, but is perfectly cast as the sensuous, but empty "I'm not near as good as I look" other woman. Barrett's is the best performance of the film. One wishes, though, that her character had been a bit more developed and given more screen time. Blame Haggis.

Blythe Danner shines as Jenna's frustrated mother, Anna. Her scenes with Tom Wilkinson (playing her husband, Stephen) are the most satisfying of the film.

In the end, Michael realizes his mistake and sets about trying to make amends. Jenna is left with a choice to make, and perhaps that, when it's all said and done, is what this film is all about --- choices.

But, no, it's not as simple as all that. "The Last Kiss" is trying to tell us something. Maybe it's that life at 30 is confusing for this generation; maybe it's that certain guys just can't (or won't) handle commitment. Or maybe it's saying that the only way to make a successful relationship is to, shock of all shocks, work at it.

The fact that it doesn't quite say any of these things is why this film isn't a success. It's taken from an Italian hit, "L'ultimo bacio," which could be more satisfying than this American retread.

But yet, the film stays with you, bounces around inside your brain, long after the lights come back up. It feels honest, and a lot like real life.

That, at least, is something.

"The Last Kiss" opens today (Sept. 15). It is rated R for language, adult situations and brief nudity.

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