Someone writing in praise of this angst-driven whine-fest of a movie noted that it is not escapist fare. That may be true, but well before the halfway point in The Last Kiss, I was looking for an escape route.
Now, I liked Zach Braff’s Garden State (2004) and I liked Braff in it. It was the perfect vehicle for his quirky looks, and his deadpan performance suited the character. Here, he’s just this flat guy, Michael, excessive of nose and bereft of chin, living an ultra-privileged life that he likes to bitch and moan about with his equally privileged buddies who, in turn, kvetch about their lives. I was never sure exactly why they’re so miserable — except that they’re facing their 30s and are in a movie scripted by Paul Haggis.
The first really weighty decision of Michael’s life comes when college hottie Kim (Rachel Bilson, TV’s The O.C.) comes on to him at a wedding. So it becomes a question of should he stick with his equally attractive pregnant girlfriend, Jenna (Jacinda Barrett, Poseidon), or succumb to the blandishments of this slightly newer model. I’d advise him to run like hell from both of them, because like all the women in The Last Kiss, they’re manipulative, self-centered and verging on shrewish. (Come to think of it, that describes a lot of the women characters in Haggis-scripted movies.) In the case of Kim, the lady in question has “potential stalker” written all over her as well — something that escapes Michael and is a good barometer of his smugness, since it never occurs to him to wonder why she’s fixated on him. Despite the fact that the movie is littered with subplots, that’s really all The Last Kiss is about.
The film is based on a fairly well-reviewed 2001 Italian film, L’Ultimo Bacio, which I’ve never seen, so I’ve no idea how closely The Last Kiss adheres to its model. If it’s a close fit, then the good reviews must be a case of cultural inferiority kicking in (i.e., the foreign version has subtitles — so it has to be profound). But it wouldn’t matter if the movie was in Sami and set amongst reindeer herders in Lapland; it would still be a depressing soap opera about a lot of shallow, unlikable characters.
However, it’s hard not to believe that the shallowness of the American version has a great deal to do with Haggis’ screenplay, given his other work, especially the overrated Crash (2004). The Last Kiss works on the same premise of under-the-surface tensions that ultimately result in a lot of Haggisian yelling and screaming. As with Crash, everyone in The Last Kiss is just waiting for an opportunity to start a fight. This is apparently Haggis’ idea of drama. And it might be viable, if he had the least idea how to create and define characters, but he doesn’t.
In The Last Kiss, all we know about Michael is that he works for an architectural firm, has a pregnant girlfriend and lives in fear of turning 30. We have no idea of anything else about him or about his relationship with Jenna. The best the film offers is “cute” scenes of bedroom playfulness that feel like they’re straight out of a bad movie.
The other characters fare no better. His fellow architect buddy, Chris (Casey Affleck), is trapped in a marriage so sour that we’re left to wonder how it ever happened in the first place (the script offers no clue). His friend Kenny (Eric Christian Olsen, Beerfest) is so cool that he lives in a disused shoe store and sleeps with a different woman every 20 minutes or so — and that’s all the characterization he gets. The final friend, Izzy (Michael Weston, Garden State), is bemoaning a failed marriage and an unsuccessful career in the cheese industry (after all, the movie’s set in Wisconsin). That’s all we’re told about these people.
After about 20 minutes with these characters, you just walk away, and maybe tell them all to grow up. But then the film tosses in the marital woes of Jenna’s parents, who are played with dry humor by Tom Wilkinson and with Oscar-desperation overkill by Blythe Danner. They’re slightly more interesting, but they finally just clutter an already cluttered movie that constantly falls back on movie cliches to “enrich” its characters. At least twice, the film resorts to the old montage business of protagonists moping for the length of an undistinguished pop song to fill in the blanks.
It’s lazy and superficial, and lacks the distraction of an “important” theme like Crash offered (racism is bad). All those years Haggis spent churning out scripts for The Facts of Life and The Love Boat took their toll. Not only did he never meet a cliche he didn’t like, he never met one he didn’t want to have bronzed. Tony Goldwyn’s direction of all this is every bit as leaden and plodding as the job he did on his last feature, Someone Like You (2001). It fits the script like a glove. Rated R for sexuality, nudity and language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke