A film review by Craig J. Koban



Rank: #19


2006, R, 115 mins.


Zach Braff: Michael / Jacinda Barrett: Jenna / Casey Affleck: Chris / Rachel Bilson: Kim / Blythe Danner: Anna / Tom Wilkenson: Stephen

Directed by Tony Goldwin / Written by Paul Haggis / Based on the screenplay for "L'ultimo bacio" by Gabriele Muccino

THE LAST KISS understands the sheer limitations of the male ego better than just about any other recent film I've seen.  It wisely points out that most men have blinders on to what is really valued in their lives and that their own wrong-headed self-righteousness often gets in the way of this realization.  More than anything, the film has one crucial lessen that all men should learn but apparently have not throughout the ages: It is next-to-impossible to lie about being unfaithful to your better half.  They always have a way of reading right through you.  

Men -  whether women want to accept this fact or not - are creatures that can get scared and feel vulnerable.  That is not to say that the actions they take as a result of their vulnerability are right, but I say that to illustrate one of the many truths that THE LAST KISS illustrates.  The male personas of the film are having mid-life crises…and they are only in their late twenties.  As a matter of fact, they are so overwhelmed with the prospects of getting older and growing more lethargic that one character has to remind another that he is – in fact – 29, not 28.  When he hears that he matter-of-factly states, “My God, you’re right.”

Being a man that has just crept into his thirties, I found myself relating to THE LAST KISS on so many endless levels.  In a subtle way, the film is sobering and wise is showing that, to some, 30 is the new 50.  When Michael - the film's main 29 year-old character - states kind of pitifully, “There are no more surprises,” you can sense the melancholy and discrete desperation in his voice.  Here’s a man that seemingly has it all, but is a bit too blindsided by his own general malaise about complacency to notice. 

He has an incredibly gorgeous girlfriend (who is ready to have his first child) who adores him, a great career, a nice home…but this is oddly what puts him into an emotional tailspin.  As he edges ever-so-closely to the big 3-0, he is starting to feel like life is suffocating him.  He feels trapped by a future life that offers him nothing spontaneous and lusts for the carefree past of his late adolescence and early twenties where the world seemed endless and the possibilities were equally unfaltering.  It’s hard to be daring with your future plans when commitment and monogamy are banging at your door.  That, in short, is what Michael fears is impeding his sense of identity.

The news of his girlfriend’s pregnancy acts as a catalyst for his growing sense of apathy and inner desolation.  He knows, deep down, that he has it all, and it's frustrating as hell to see him make damaging choices in order for him to discover who he is during his time of crisis.  On certain levels, Michael and his buddies are unsympathetic yuppies that you want to pound some sense into.  Many of us would love and aspire to have loving relationships, a possibility of a family, and a great job.  Yet, it is here where the brilliance of THE LAST KISS emerges; it has an unflinching and pessimistic honesty with its story and characters that makes it resonant with believability. 

Paul Haggis wrote the screenplay, based on a 2001 Italian film called L’ultmo bacio (not seen by me), and his fingertips are all over it.  Much like what he has done with his Oscar winning work on last years CRASH, he spins interlocking stories of several characters with effortless ease to provide for a broader statement on universal, human themes and struggles.  All of THE LAST KISS' characters and the smaller subplots that they are involved in don't have the density and forcefulness as the ones in CRASH, or the hard hitting emotional impact of Haggis’ other Oscar winning script for MILLION DOLLAR BABY, but THE LAST KISS continues to display Haggis as the eminent screenwriter of human relationships.  His script has an immaculate understanding of the male/female relationship and how small and innocuous conversations can explode into territory that the parties wish they never dared exploring.  More than anything, his intelligent and perceptive dialogue reveals how people both express and suppress their feelings, often to both positive and negative effect.

The arc of the film is subtle in its brilliance – follow five couples in crisis and allow all of their individual stories to interweave into a mosaic that reflects the films overall themes of dedication, loyalty, and dealing with one’s place in the world.  The emotional spectrum is remarkably broad in the film.  By telling all of these various stories Haggis is able to marvelously shed light on the way some people loose sight of what’s great in their life and instead make stupid moral choices that they try to justify to their loved ones even after they know they have failed miserably.  Various stories deal with certain levels of infidelity and how some foolishly try to escape from the consequences of such actions by inner denial and avoidance.  What most of the characters learn throughout the course of the film is that acceptance and forgiveness – most of the time – is only  achieved when mutual compromise is reached.  What is also a crucial element in this is the self-actualization of the sins you have perpetrated and your loved one’s willingness to accept the wrongs that have been done.  Buried underneath, however, is a sort of foolish optimism on the couple’s part that a lifelong relationship will be utterly friction free.  I guess this means that when couples hit rock bottom, they go past the bottom as a result.

As the film opens Michael (played by Zach Braff, with the same level of soft-spoken charm and wit he displayed in his 2004 film GARDEN STATE) makes an announcement with his wife to her family.  After living together for three years, his girlfriend Jenna (in a career making performance by Jacinda Barrett) reveals that they are having a baby.  The two, however, still have not reached an agreement on marriage.  Michael is a good man who loves Jenna with a passion (“If you want to have a kid, raise a family, and spend the rest of your life with a woman, than this is the woman,” his voice-over explains), but impending thoughts of fatherhood are like an emotional noose for him.  He feels his life crashing down with predictably, as if he has no more say in what he does.  He’s like a wounded animal in a cage that does not know how to get out.

The key to his existentialist cage door comes in the form of Kim (the gorgeous Rachel Bilson), a 20-year-old college student that he meets at a  friend’s wedding reception.  She is, in essence, the perfect woman for any free man that desires her.  She’s unattainably luminous, happy-go-lucky, and spirited.  Most importantly, she slowly begins to develop a huge torch for the unavailable Michael.  She asks for his phone number at the wedding.  He does not have a pen, but she quickly tells him where he can find her on campus.  He makes a mental note of that fact, but why?  He’s already spoken for and has a girlfriend with a bun in the oven.  Maybe because Kim represents a last stab at excitement and impulsiveness.  Does this make Michael selfish?  Yes, but he’s a man whose lethargy and indifference clouds his good common sense.  He knows, deep down, that Kim represents temptation that he needs to avoid at all cost.  Unfortunately, Kim is played by Rachel Bilson, and it would take a Herculean effort to say “no” to her, right?

At the same time, there are other couples that are experiencing troubling times.  Jenna’s own parents, ironically, are going down a path to separation.  Her mother, Anna (in a great performance by Blythe Danner) is growing increasingly ambivalent about the lack of attention that her husband, Stephen (played equally well by Tom Wilkenson) is giving her (at one point when she asks him what he’ll be doing when she dies, he dryly responds, “Ironing my black suit”).  She eventually confesses a past affair of her own and abruptly moves out.  At the same time this is occurring two of Michael’s friends, Chris (in an effective and endearing performance by Casey Affleck), and Kenny (Eric Christian Olsen) are having relationship woes of their own.  Especially problematic is Chris' predicament.  His wife and child are “drowning” him as well, but instead of looking towards an affair to spice up his restlessness, he pains to find the right way to tell his wife that they desperately need time apart.

On certain levels, THE LAST KISS feels predictable.  Michael gives into Kim’s temptations and Jenna finds out, with an easily foreseeable response.  We grow to see the characters' struggles and eventually see how they are able to find atonement for their differences and infidelities.  Michael’s arc is fairly predestined.  He occupies the film’s need to paint him as a shallow and egotistical young man whose desires get the better of him, nearly ruin his relationship, and then allow for him to realize what a fool he’s been and discover what he has in life.  On the levels of being a film about discovery and forgiveness, THE LAST KISS does not break a lot of new, fertile thematic ground.

Yet, what makes one forgive its obviousness is the strength and convictions of its characters and the deeply honest and frank ways they are presented.  Haggis allows his people to be open and candid, often to the point where we wince at what comes out of their mouths.  The conversations and verbal battles have a heartbreaking realism to them, which allows for the characters to penetrate to deeper levels that the otherwise obviousness of the script shows us.  There is an earnestness, sadness, and unmistakable anger that penetrates the characters and their words.  Ultimately, when it comes time to deal with how all of the characters are blind to what's valued most in life, THE LAST KISS is incredibly spot on with its accuracy.

The ensemble cast all give great performances of heart and weight.  Both Blythe Danner and Tom Wilkenson give a tortured humanity to their troubled married couple, both of whom are forced to deal with and accept each other’s shortcomings.  Casey Affleck gives a remarkably sincere performance as a man that needs to relay to his wife exactly how he feels, even if she does not like what she will hear.  Zach Braff, astoundingly, is able to foster our acceptance and understanding of his otherwise arrogant and selfish character.  His easygoing charm and everyman charisma makes us understand him even while he is making stupid, stupid decisions.  Rachel Bilson is also effective as the young bombshell that also has emotional issues with the checkered actions of Michael.  If any performance is a stand out then it’s Jacinda Barret’s, who has the most thankless role in the film as the grieving girlfriend who puts out all of her hostile and angry feelings on the table and forces Michael to wake up and realize what she desires in him.  Her work is raw and real and watching her character disintegrate from happy girlfriend to anguished and heartbroken women is painful.  After watching THE LAST KISS there is little doubt that Barret is a major talent in the making.

Paul Haggis is on a definitive role.  After two knockout screenplay punches with last year’s CRASH and 2004’s MILLION DOLLAR BABY, his script for THE LAST KISS rounds off a solid TKO.  Like his other works, the film is brilliant in its observations of how twenty-year-olds grow to think that they are trapped by their lives and - through a serious of tumultuous and emotionally trying circumstances - they eventually mature and realize that they are not trapped at all.  Like ANNIE HALL, THE LAST KISS is a movie about relationships that effectively balances humor with truthful pathos, not to mention that it is a keen and introspective investigation into how male/female relationships tick.  With outstanding performances and yet another masterfully written screenplay by Haggis that is filled with dialogue that sparkles with wit, whimsicality, and debilitating truths, THE LAST KISS is an intelligent and moving portrait of late Generation X-er angst and the perils and sacrifices one needs to make in order to finally become an adult.  And isn’t it refreshing to see a date flick that treats its characters (and the audiences) intelligently and never panders down to them?

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