The Last Kiss
This review is a modified version of the review published on www.filmmonthly.com
For fans of Garden State, penned and directed by star Zach Braff, expectations for his follow-up film The Last Kiss are high. Though the latter film is not written or directed by Braff, the film peruses similar thematic territory: a disaffected twenty-something suffers an emotional crisis about the meaning of life.
The Last Kiss offers pedigree in its own right—written by Paul Haggis, screenwriter for two Best Picture films (Million Dollar Baby and Crash) and winner of a Best Screenplay Oscar (for Crash). Director Tony Goldwyn (grandson of Samuel Goldwyn, speaking of pedigree) may be best known for his role as bad guy Carl in 90s cinematic sensation Ghost, but he has been directing since 1999’s A Walk on the Moon (featuring a pre-Unfaithful Diane Lane (playing another unfaithful woman, actually) and a pre-Lord of the Rings Viggo Mortensen). Goldwyn has been earning his directing stripes mostly in television, including two episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. With all this to recommend it, the question remains: does The Last Kiss live up to expectations? Not so much.
One qualification: I’m not yet on the “Haggis is a genius” bandwagon. If you’ve read my review of Crash, posted on this website, you’ll know that I’m suspicious that Haggis simply isn’t as deep as he thinks he is. The Last Kiss not only doesn’t alleviate my concerns that Haggis writes well-crafted by shallow screenplays, the film in fact reassures me that my assessment of Crash, despite all the hoopla, is essentially accurate.
The Last Kiss stars Zach Braff as Michael, a young man with a well-appointed life who fears that his perfect life will offer no more surprises. When Michael’s girlfriend Jenna (Jacinda Barrett) becomes pregnant (shouldn’t that count as a surprise?), he walks through the following weeks in a daze, mourning for the death of his youth. That is, until he meets nubile college student Kim (Rachel Bilson). Any guesses as to what happens next? Michael cheats, gets caught, and then “realizes” that he does indeed want his girlfriend. Anyone see anything new here? Anyone?
Of course, twenty-somethings today do share an apprehension about the state of matrimony. As Michael tells Jenna, he’ll marry her when she can name five couples that are happy five years into their marriage. All Jenna can offer in reply is the example of her 30-years strong parents, whose relationship naturally falls apart during the film. The film’s openness about this nuptial apprehension is new to an industry that makes millions by creating fairy tale love stories that reassure us all about the miracle of love. The Last Kiss doesn’t try to wrap perfectly the package of this film by finding easy answers for Michael’s fears or by determining an easy solution to his troubles with Jenna. Instead, Haggis and Goldwyn allow ambiguity to deepen the nuance of a movie that exposes Michael’s inexplicable but visceral fear of the future.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t progress much further than this apprehension and ambiguity. Michael begins and ends the film repeating the same line bemoaning that there are no more surprises. Rather than come to terms with this anxiety, he instead reacts to each moment with instinctual survival tactics, spouting clichéd dialogue. After kissing Kim, Michael rushes home to a furious Jenna and assures her that he has learned his lesson. When Jenna refuses to listen, Michael returns to Kim to finish what he started. What happened to learning his lesson?
Despite a rather prosaic script, the actors make the best of their material. Braff’s despondent Michael perfects a whiny pout, but his brave departure from his typical goofy charm on television’s Scrubs moves his career to the next level. Jacinda Barrett redefines lovely, making three-dimensional a character who barely registers on the page. As the world that Jenna trusts falls apart, Barrett makes Jenna’s fear palpable. She’s so good, in fact, that I wished the film began with her discovery of Michael’s infidelity. Once Jenna forces Michael to explain his actions, the film’s pacing takes off, and the sparks between these two actors fly. But Haggis relegates Jenna to the sidelines, providing only glimpses of her own insecurity.
As Kim, Rachel Bilson has even less of a character to work with. She works the innocent-sexy mojo she has perfected as Summer Roberts on television’s The O.C., and Michael’s attraction to her is understandable. But what is her attraction to this morose young man, who admits that he has a girlfriend during their first meeting? Why does she so blatantly chase a young man who repeatedly pulls away from her? Why offer him complete immunity before sex and then become upset that he doesn’t say goodbye before he leaves her bed? Kim encapsulates so many male complaints about female manipulation that Bilson’s efforts to expose her little-girl naivete and vulnerability are overshadowed by the big stamp on her forehead: “fucked up chick.”
The Last Kiss expands its scope beyond Michael, examining the crises of his three male friends as well. The point of the view of the film is decidedly masculine (but for the focus upon the inner life of Jenna’s frustrated mother, played by powerhouse Blythe Danner). Casey Affleck portrays new father and husband Chris, trapped by his marriage to a naggy wife and by his crying baby. He just can’t take it anymore, you see. Somehow it doesn’t occur to him that the person who spends all her time with that crying baby doesn’t have the luxury of making the choice to leave. But Haggis is less concerned with the character of the wife: instead he attempts to draw parallels between Michael’s fear and Chris’ reality—marriage eventually becomes a power struggle between the woman and the man as the baby overtakes their lives. Michael’s other two friends realize how lucky they are to be single and take off to travel the world.
Kim and all the women in the film embody a paradox: at once the perfect male fantasy and the perfect male trap. Kim makes repeated passes at Michael, but then she turns up with a mix-CD. The nerve! When Michael’s friend Kenny (Eric Christian Olsen) meets a woman with whom he has impromptu and athletic sex repeatedly, he rejoices. But then the bomb drops: she invites him to meet her parents. The horror!! Basically, women trap men: they offer sex and then expect things like love, fidelity, and responsibility. The fiends!!! Okay, so I’m exaggerating a tad bit, but taken as a whole, The Last Kiss depicts a depressing portrait of female attempts to domesticate men, with domestication leading to castration.
As an examination of male weakness and anxiety, The Last Kiss captures perfectly its characters’ desperation and fear. As a love story, it wisely refuses to provide a pat resolution. But as an analysis of the human psyche or gender relations, The Last Kiss barely skims the surface. The dialogue retreads every relationship cliché, and director Goldwyn embraces this staleness with too perfect compositions and melodramatic effects. Those of us that loved the originality and vitality of Garden State will apparently have to wait for Braff’s next flick to recapture the magic.