Undermarked Oversights: The Last Kiss

After Zach Braff starred in the quirky coming-of-age comedy Garden State, a move that brought the budding "Scrubs" star's talent in direction and screenwriting to light, he follows it up with his performance in another human transition drama, The Last Kiss. At first glance, it might look like Tony Goldwyn has assembled an unofficial sequel to Braff's film ... which it is, in a roundabout, completely unattached way. Just picture his former depressant, pill-popping character approaching normalcy, only to be thwarted by the uncertainty lying in surrendering to a future that holds "no surprises". Carried over from Italy's original film L'Ultimo Bacio, it relishes in dragging its audience through all the unpleasant arguments, false epiphanies and growing pains that late '20s adults suffer through as a collective -- and they're all unexpectedly precise, whether that's something the audience will benefit from or not.

The Last Kiss captures their static emotional gradient to a fault, a time that causes level-minded young professionals to make destructive decisions and poorly-guided failures to grow a pair and start living their life to a fuller extent. Michael (Braff), a successful architect, is at the center of the story as he begins to structure his life around newly-pregnant girlfriend Jenna (Jacinda Barrett). Their relationship mirrors near perfection, filled with playful banter and semi-sexual undertones that convey a sense of enduring comfort between the two. Surrounding them, however, is a bitter network of not-so-successful relationships, complete with Jenna's parents' crumbling 30-year marriage, played well by Tom Wilkinson as the sardonic, emotionally stagnant father and Blythe Danner as the frail mother, and Casey Affleck and Lauren Lee Smith as the flagrant young couple Chris and Lisa with child in tow.

Instability swirls around Michael -- emphasized by his unwillingness to marry Jenna until she can name three couples that have lasted over 5 years of marriage -- which comes to a head when Kim (Rachel Bilson), a college-aged flautist free of responsibility and obligation, approaches him at a friend's wedding with starry eyes and unavoidable attraction. It's impossible to ignore the use of red coloring in her dress and in several subsequent color motifs, as she ignites an alarming spark in Michael that boosts up the central themes within The Last Kiss: fear of finiteness, and a desire for the dangerous unknown. Though I'm a bigger fan of the like-minded trepidation present in Mike Nichols Closer, there's a particularly creative gravity that Tony Goldwyn gives this story that emphasizes the swirling mentalities of their age group. He paints a picture that tries to keep villains and heroes out of the mix, instead giving each character their own evolving range.

The Last Kiss ditches the lightness generated by Braff and Barrett's charm by growing exponentially more realistic and unsettling as the conflicts cascade downwards, seducing unaware filmgoers to look into a painful mirror instead of laughing along with a relationship parody. Director Goldwyn utilizes a bold script to tell its emotive story, instead hallmarking tense performances from a solid ensemble cast that carry empathy to and from its characters. Marketing is a bigger part of a film's success than you might think, and I'm not just talking about the attractiveness of billboards or posters. You're likely to be disappointed if you go into The Last Kiss expecting the cheeky rom-com that it's projected as being, but to go in with the knowledge that it will show us some of those truthful, uglier corners of relationships might just be the right tip-off needed to scoop up potency from its efforts.

Braff's depiction of Michael, largely similar but a bit less-awkward than his Garden State character, receives the most palpable villain moniker of the bunch, though he's clearly influenced by the chaos in Chris' struggles through a "forced" marriage and the allures of the vibrant, free-spirited Kim. But he's not really villainous; his decisions are his own, but there's something about his internal conflict that evokes a sense of humanity dormant in many of us instead of pure antagonism. Jenna, in turn, comes across as the purest of them by being the relationship fantasy girl -- a counterbalance to Kim, who embodies the physically-alluring and lively "fling" fantasy.

Absorbing The Last Kiss and all its bursting drama at face value won't provide pitch-perfect realism, though that's likely not a fault on its assembly. Sure, some of us have endured the full spectrum of arguments that Michael and Jenna will endure, or even pressed through a least a chunk of Chris and Lisa's child-centered gauntlet of emotions. But to have them all clustered into one narrative, along with a psycho ex-boyfriend (Michael Weston) and a flourishing womanizer (Eric Christian Olsen) pulling up the rear in a quadruplet of male friends, is too cluttered for direct belief.

Yet, that's part of the environment for many within that age group, a cleansing wash of sociologically-driven conflicts that work something like Darwinism in the emotional arena. Viewing it as a condensed collage of everything that the age group endures at the time, however, proves more insightful than most will feel comfortable in acknowledging. Though we haven't endured everything that takes place in The Last Kiss, it'd be hard to believe that someone hasn't gone through at least one of the transitioning difficulties. It's in the small piece of their relationship woes that we identify with in the funneled chaos that makes it a success.

Paired with crisply composed visuals from Clint Eastwood's go-to cinematographer Tom Stern (Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby) and a contemporary musical backdrop, including excellent usage of Imogen Heap's captivating track "Hide and Seek" during a transition sequence, The Last Kiss nails down a fraught yet genuine tone for its dour atmosphere. It captures those painful sequences, from the red-faced argument between warring parents to the point where Michael oversteps and regrets stepping over his bounds in equal measure, in a striking light that taps into our memory databanks by concocting them as vivid reflections on past mistakes that we either could've made -- or did. As a result, Goldwyn's well-acted precursor to thirty-something constancy is a bleak but sincere affair, tying a sense of optimism into our foolish misgivings through the prospects of forgiveness and understanding. It's far from the comedy that it's projected as being, and that's a really good thing.

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