“The Last Kiss”, written by Paul Haggis (“Million Dollar Baby”, “Crash”), directed by Tony Goldwyn, an actor who now directs, and starring Zach Braff (“Garden State”, TV’s “Scrubs”) is an interesting film. It is also a well observed, well written, well acted and often annoying film. But perhaps this is intentional.
Michael (Braff) and Jenna (Jacinda Barrett, last seen in “Poseidon”) have been together for three years. One night, at dinner with her parents, Anna (Blythe Danner) and Stephen (Tom Wilkinson), they announce they are having a baby. Jenna is overjoyed, but everyone else has mixed emotions. At a wedding the next day, Jenna and Michael meet up with the rest of Michael’s friends; Chris (Casey Affleck) is tired of his wife telling him how bad he is as she deals with their whiny baby, Izzy (Michael Weston) is taking the break-up of his relationship badly and doesn’t react well when his former girlfriend shows up at the wedding and Kenny (Eric Christian Olsen) is firmly unattached and prefers it that way. During the celebration, each of their respective problems surfaces. Then Michael meets Kim (Rachel Bilson, TV’s “The OC”), a forward young college student. Michael is beginning to feel that his ‘entire life has the feeling it is all planned out’ and Kim provides a welcome distraction. Izzy decides the time is right for a road trip to South America. Can he get any of his friends to join him?
“The Last Kiss” is good on many levels and bad on others.
Writer Paul Haggis, who wrote “Million Dollar Baby” and co-wrote and directed “Crash”, has given each of these characters more depth and background than you might expect from your average multiplex entry. As the film is based on an Italian movie, I wonder how much of this is his work and how much was already there. Given his background with “Crash”, I suspect he added a significant amount. Because we are partially invested in each of the characters, the film frequently revisits them. In the film’s best sequence, we revisit each character over the course of one evening, after the wedding, as each deals with their life. Michael and Jenna sit at home talking, then arguing. Izzy forces his way into his ex-girlfriend’s apartment as she is having sex with a guy she met at the wedding. He leaves, upset, and ends up at Kenny’s. Chris decides to leave his wife, also ending up at Kenny’s. Kenny, despite the interruptions, is having fantastic sex with a girl he met at the wedding. Anna walks out on Stephen, fed up with his lack of need for her.
Okay, so this level of writing is good because a lot is going on. We are never bored. And the characters are interesting and well observed. But the whole situation is phony and theatrical. How can we believe all of these things would happen to this group of people over the course of one evening?
The actors are all pretty good, and handle the writing and direction well, but the same theatricality overshadows their performances.
Zach Braff shows great promise as an actor. Able to do broad comedy (as the centerpiece of TV’s “Scrubs”), he displayed a wider range as an actor and director in “Garden State”, a well-made, memorable film. As Michael, he is a confused young man who finds adulthood looming. In a relationship with a beautiful, caring woman, he is unable to commit to marriage because no one he knows has ever had a happy union. With the news of the baby, he puts on a happy face, but we see the conflicting emotions. Then, when he meets Kim, he sees what he wants in her; freedom, excitement, spontaneity, to be a college kid again. Yet, he resists her overtures, giving in slowly and reluctantly.
After Jenna finds out, Michael realizes what he has done and attempts to make things right. Everything he does in this regard seems believable and right.
What doesn’t quite work is why he would cheat on her in the first place. He feels trapped, so he decides to cheat. Yet, when she finds out and leaves him, which is clearly what he would hope would happen, he suddenly wants her back. “I realized what I would lose” or some such blathering is his reason for fighting to win her back. Yet, throughout this contrivance, Haggis gives both very truthful things to say, making it only slightly annoying.
Yes, I realize that almost every movie affair ends with this realization, but without it, there would be no story. It’s up to you to decide if you need to see yet another telling of this type of tale. All I can say is that this one is told better than most.
Jacinda Barrett has had quite a year. First, she boarded an ill-fated cruise ship with her young son (“Poseidon”) and now she has to deal with a cheating boyfriend. Not exactly the same level, but she does a better, more convincing job in this smaller, more intimate film.
Casey Affleck is also good as Chris, a young man who married too young and now regrets it. Over the course of the film, his journey is similar to Michael’s (they even work at the same architecture firm) and is equally well-observed by the writer. This character’s resolution is probably the most believable of all the people in this film, well-done, smart and realistic.
Michael Weston’s Izzy is the comic relief of the group and the most emotional of the bunch. Because of these two traits, he is also the most theatrical and fares least well. From the moment we first meet him, he is distraught, angry, crazy, drunk or more, never at any point appearing like a real human.
Eric Christian Olsen is good as Kenny, the free spirited confirmed bachelor of the group. Meeting a woman at the wedding, he returns home to have mutually exciting sex with her. At one point, their relationship changes and Kenny’s reaction to the change seems entirely natural and fitting for his character.
Rachel Bilson, in her first screen role, is good as Kim, the forward, young college student. She is clearly interested in Michael from the moment she sets eyes on him at the wedding and repeatedly comes on to him. Throughout, she pursues him, even after she learns he has a girlfriend, and clearly has a schoolgirl crush on him. For a long time, Michael will only flirt with her, but when his relationship with Jenna hits a bump, he goes a little further. He is about the most reluctant adulterer ever to appear in film. When the relationship runs its course, Kim’s reactions are entirely right for her character’s experience, age and place in the world.
Danner and Wilkinson’s characters are also good, but they seem out of place. Anna leaves Stephen because he ‘doesn’t need her’. She is sick of the look of complacency in his face. She walks out, confronting him at his office, trying to get some reaction out of him. But Stephen is a psychiatrist and remains calm and stoic. The scene where she bursts into his office, during a session to confront him, has one of the funniest lines of dialogue I have heard in a long time. But their characters are not part of the same generation as the others, and don’t seem to fit.
The film is annoying for a couple of reasons. First, the previously mentioned theatricality of all of this happening to the same group, at the same time. Then, many of the characters treat others like as*holes. Are we supposed to care for these people, empathize with them when they are treating their partners so badly? No, I actually don’t think we are. Even though this is annoying, it works in the film’s favor. These behaviors make their characters seem even more realistic. No one is good all the time, so to show these people behaving badly makes them appear more human.
Also, I just realized that I described almost every actor as ‘good’. Yet, when critiquing their performances, one thing is consistent. The dialogue is well-written. So there is a small disconnect between the writing and the direction of the actors. They aren’t on the same level, making the film see a little artificial. Goldwyn, the director, is a former actor (he played the villain in “Ghost”) and can handle the job well. But pairing a writer like Haggis with a director like Goldwyn is similar to an art school student working with Rembrandt and attempting to copy his work.
“The Last Kiss” is an interesting film, not perfect, but then life isn’t perfect either.