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Published: Friday, 9/15/2006

Movie review: The Last Kiss ***

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Jacinda Barrett and Zach Braff in The Last Kiss.
Jacinda Barrett and Zach Braff in The Last Kiss.
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In movies, characters tend to do things for a reason. If a punch is thrown, for instance, the character has a reason for throwing it; he's been pushed too far, or he's a hothead, or whatever. We take simple motivations for granted, so when a character does something completely without reason, and when that movie appears serious, smart, and knowing - well, it's a general movie code for "existential crisis."

In The Last Kiss, Zach Braff - quickly becoming the go-to guy for contemporary Graduate-like ennui - returns somewhat to yearning twentysomethings unable to express their angst. In Garden State, which was also his directorial debut, Braff played a guy who flew home to mourn his mom and connect with fellow dislocated souls. In Last Kiss, which almost could be about the same character years later, he's made that connection, he's dating a supermodel (Jacinda Barrett), and happy as a clam, with a child on the way, yet ...

Why does he stray? Once the movie has shown us the various ways a relationship sours, Braff meets another, younger supermodel (The O.C.'s Rachel Bilson) at a wedding and inexplicably threatens his good thing with the other supermodel. He wanders away from the party to think. He climbs into a tree house, and though he and the model have just met, he immediately begins expressing a kind of existential dissatisfaction and revealing his level of self-absorption: "It's like I know everything that is going to happen. There are no more surprises."

And she to him: "The world is moving so fast now we start freaking out far earlier than our parents did."

Gosh, they're cute.

They speak fluent Dawson's Creek. Which is to say, screenwriter Paul Haggis (like Dawson creator Kevin Williamson) is a chronic over-writer. Or maybe he just has a bad habit of installing characters with epic amounts of self-importance. Whichever, the similarity ends there because The Last Kiss was a screenplay Haggis wrote years before he won back-to-back Oscars for the screenplay to Million Dollar Baby and Crash (which he also directed), and it feels like the cute, ambitious warm-up exercise of a fledgling writer. Tony Goldwyn is the director here; an actor himself, he gives his big, fantastic cast room to shine.

The Last Kiss, however, is Haggis' baby, and that's a mixed blessing.

The bad: He can be shamelessly schematic, assigning every character to a purpose, moving them like chess pieces. No one is to blame in a Haggis script because everyone is to blame, and that might sound like a profundity when explaining the bottomless well of issues that surround a carjacking (as in Crash), but in a story about the dumb things people do when they're in love, it feels a little overly objective and a denial of personal responsibility.

Now the good:

We follow multiple, winding stories of various relationships at various stages of naivete and neglect, at various ages, and the point is clear and insightful. Think Robert Altman lite: Besides Braff and Barrett, there's Casey Affleck and his wife; he's married with a kid but ready to leave them, for fuzzy reasons. There's Blythe Danner and Tom Wilkinson as Barrett's parents; Danner reacts to Wilkinson's ignoring her by chasing an old flame (a very pudgy Harold Ramis). There are Braff's friends, running from commitments or hung up on old commitments; and there's Braff and his much younger supermodel, a fling all the more irritating for audiences, I bet, because Barrett is the opposite of the typical shrill harpy movie wife.

Bilson, making her first major movie role, is meant to come off as a lightweight, but on a big screen she acts with her smile and hasn't quite learned how to suggest the person behind it. She's pure TV. But Barrett is the real thing, and a revelation. An Australian, she's best known as a former cast member of MTV's The Real World (the London cast), and don't hold that against her. Scorned, her performance turns fierce and frightening. It's the opposite of the cutesy actress who shrugs and forgives because the plot tells her to. She's a hurricane of fury here, practically in a different movie, firmly rooted in the real real world.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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