Guarded State

Hand-wringing twentysomethings ponder monogamy and matrimony

Sep 13, 2006 at 4:00 am
Those twentysomethings, poor dears, can never catch a break in the movies. First this maligned generation is told, in countless gritty indies and perky studio comedies, that they're rowing through life without oars. Now, director Tony Goldwyn's admirably understated handling of dispiritingly slender material suggests that if you're pushing 30, you're likely to be fuddy-duddy before your time. Evidently that's a good thing.

The topic sentence of Paul Haggis' screenplay (adapted from Gabriele Muccino's milquetoast Italian 2001 movie of the same name) whacks you over the head early on, when 29-year-old Michael (Zach Braff) a slacker disguised as an architect, announces in desperation that everyone he knows is "in crisis." Never mind that he and everyone he knows are a tad young to be wringing their hands over hearth and home versus the wild side, but there it is. Michael, whose girlfriend Jenna (a poised Jacinda Barrett) is several weeks into her first pregnancy, signals his panicked unreadiness for fatherhood by affirming his undying love for the strong and steady Jenna while gazing into the middle distance with furrowed brow. Their immediate circle of friends — some old before their time, some unattractively parked in Never Never Land — face (or rather do their darnedest to avoid) similar life-cycle dilemmas, and it comes as no surprise when a coopful of chickens comes to roost at the lavish wedding of a foolishly radiant acquaintance.

Fielding a come-hither glance from firm-young-fleshed Kim (The OC's Rachel Bilson), a chipper college student whose assets include an overweening affection for the color purple and the pronunciation of "crisises" with the barest hint of an adorable lithp, Michael sets limply about throwing away what's best in his life, while his best pals, each according to his type, follow suit. Chris (Casey Affleck) is trying to reconcile new fatherhood with a dead-in- the-water marriage, while Izzy (Michael Weston), smarting over being dumped by his girlfriend, and Kenny (Eric Christian Olsen), ready to bed any woman as allergic to monogamy as he is, doggedly pursue the kind of single life that wouldn't appeal to a dog.

Goldwyn, an actor who turned director with the delightful 1999 drama A Walk on the Moon, directs here with a precise appreciation for those moments when life forces into the open the unhappiness you've been stubbornly sitting on for years. (In one of the movie's best and, significantly, wordless scenes, Jenna's mother, played by Blythe Danner, holes up under a table, her aristocratic features puckered into a silent scream.) Still, for a movie that's morally tilted toward the virtues of shacking up and settling down, The Last Kiss takes a dreary view of matrimony's uxorious pleasures. Maybe on the tender cusp of 30, marriage ought to look a little drab, but even Jenna's lovingly concerned parents (Danner and Tom Wilkinson), who have earned the right to fly the flag for domestic bliss, are deep in you've-never-understood-me doo-doo of their own, and when Wilkinson finally ponies up with the inevitable voice of experience to his errant future son-in-law, the words don't measure up to the actor's customary skilled delivery. Haggis can write a good one-liner, but he has a bad habit of shouting at the audience, and what worked for the over-the-top hysteria that was Crash feels like too much information, too loudly offered in a putative chamber piece.

As for Braff, on whose performance the movie's drama and its comedy depend, he has schleppy charm to burn but no range whatsoever. Like many actors who come out of television comedy, he can't stop wooing the audience for a smile and a tear — or worse, both at once. Michael is a thin variant of Braff's comatose TV actor in Garden State, who grows all too clearly out of his luckless schlemiel of an intern on Scrubs. How to build a movie out of someone whose idea of self-redemption is squatting on his beloved's porch in the rain? The only person who's having anything resembling a good time in the whole forlorn caper is Kenny, and he adds up to not much more than an unusually active pair of bare buttocks. The Last Kiss isn't terrible, but if you're strapped for a night out it can easily wait till DVD. Better yet, it may be time to revisit Diner.