The Last Kiss

(In which I discuss The Last Kiss, a film written by Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby), based on an Italian movie (L’Ultimo Bacio), starring Zach Braff (Garden State, Scrubs) and Jacinda Barrett.)

(Because I saw a movie before the release date, I figure I should review it.)

The Last Kiss is a movie about Marriage, or, perhaps, Commitment, in much the same way that Crash is about Race, but without being driven to the operatic grandeur that carried and hampered the latter. This downscaling makes sense. While race is a question of groups, of the tension between populations, marriage, unless you find yourself under the tutelage of Warren Jeffs, is about only two people at a time. It is inherently a more intimate topic. But this intimacy, not to mention much plausibility, is strained by the Crash-like compression of relevant events necessary to address an idea from all possible angles in feature-length time, as it appears Haggis again tries to do here. The movie packs in five couples in various degrees of coupledom: from the pair married thirty years struggling with boredom and fatigue to the newlyweds who do nothing but fight over their new child; from the recently broken up to the recent sexual infatuation.

The central figure is Michael (Braff), who is in a state of confusion after his girlfriend Jenna (Barrett) becomes pregnant. He is terrified at the thought of his future being determined, of living a life with no more surprises, as we are told several times.

When the movie opens, Michael and Jenna are sitting in a car and Michael tells Jenna that he loves her and wants to be with her and have a child with her. A vehicle with an ad featuring a beautiful female model pulls next to them. We see, from Michael’s point of view, the juxtaposition: the woman he knows so well, so specific with her freckles and tics, next to an airbrushed possibility. This is the emblematic image of the movie, and we can forgive the weighty directorial hand because the moment arrives as a joke, its bluntness brushed aside by laughter.

Enter Kim (Rachel Bilson): a flirtatious and beautiful college student. Kim shows up at a wedding, of all places, as if by magic or the hand of a clever screenwriter, merely to offer Michael a way to temptation, and it is here in the relationship between Michael and Kim, when Michael is offered his imagined possibility, that the movie most grievously falters. To his credit, Braff manages to express as much bewilderment at the fervent attentions of this coed hottie as the audience feels. The development of their flirtation moves along inorganically, Kim following him at the wedding all the way up into an isolated treehouse, as if he cannot elude the thought of her, as if she herself were not a real person but a nagging doubt personified, which indeed she is.

Despite its weaknesses, the film is successful on many fronts. Braff is better funny than furrowing, but here he pulls off pathos solidly, and the acting all-around is strong. The mix of comedy and drama seems just right: the bursts of laughter in the midst of pathos are of the most satisfying sort, and audiences certainly find it easier to sympathize with a character who makes them laugh. Life, after all, is neither farce nor tragedy, but a bit of both. For the most part, the film eschews schmaltz in favor of interactions that feel honest and complicated, if not always organic.

Implicit comparisons to Garden State are inevitable, so best just to go ahead and make them explicit. This is a somewhat grown-up version of Garden State: it is more serious, less whimsical, and more about entanglement than estrangement. But these are works out of two different minds, despite the attention both pay to Mr. Braff’s comedic expressions of confusion and aimlessness: the comparisons should not be given too much importance.

And if you enjoyed the Grammy-winning Braff mixtape that was the Garden State soundtrack (I did), you might want to give a listen to the selection I gather he put together for this movie: they’re pretty much indistinguishable.

The Last Kiss opens at the Toronto Film Festival on the 10th, then for wide release on the 15th. I attended a “word of mouth” pre-screening loosely connected with Northwestern, Braff’s alma mater, at which Braff himself introduced the film. He was hardly informative, but certainly entertaining.

Speaking of word of mouth, everyone should go see Little Miss Sunshine, which is the funniest movie I’ve seen in a while.