Remember Garden State? I certainly do.
Scrubs star Zach Braff's 2004 cinematic debut left audiences and critics alike enchanted and absorbed by the actor's uncanny ability to replicate the complex wave of emotions surrounding that critical time called "growing up." As Mr. Braff has recently announced his intention to leave the television series to work on films full time, his new film The Last Kiss, an adaptation of a successful 1999 Italian film by the same name, might be seen as a barometer of how he will fare in that wide world. It tries very hard to put a more mature spin on the themes developed in Garden State, but in the end it remains more a frustratingly scattered curiosity than a tightly focused and polished meditation on those topics.
Potentially risking becoming stereotyped into these sorts of roles, Mr. Braff plays Michael, a mopey, somewhat depressed young man inching perilously close to 30 who sees his life as being "fixed": he is seemingly unable to escape the complications inherent in his relationship with pregnant wife Jenna (Jacinda Barrett), her parents (a grim Tom Wilkinson and a fluttery Blythe Danner, who have their own set of interpersonal issues to deal with), and in his job at a local architecture firm. Is he bored? Not really, but the excitement he once knew has all but died out, leaving him desperate for something new. Then he meets Kim (Rachel Bilson), a college student ten years his junior, who, upon Michael's explanation to her of his predicament, pronounces his life "really boring" and who later gives him a "really awesome" mix tape. How droll.
It is in Ms. Bilson's character – manipulative, self-serving, and wholly enamored of Michael – that the film's credulity begins to crumble. As she begins to tear him away from his responsibilities and convictions, we grow to hate her and Michael as well.
As a femme fatale she fits the mold nicely, but there is something a little too convenient about her sudden appearance and precisely calibrated personality, a quality that makes her less a fully realized persona than a rough outline of one. Her improbable appearance and seduction of Michael are dramatically necessary, to be sure, but that is all they are (there isn't any more). It is refreshing, then, that both Michael and Jenna handle the inevitable revelation of the affair in a painfully realistic manner.
Yet in contrast to the gross (over)sentimentality that formed so much of Garden State's essence, Mr. Braff's wizened perspectives serve him well as he demonstrates the disastrous capacity for miscommunication, fear, doubt, and temptation to ruin even the strongest of loves. The final affirmation of "telling the truth" as a remedy for wrongs committed has a beautiful sincerity; Michael is willing to go to any lengths to make up for his indiscretion (very far indeed, as it turns out), and never do we doubt his conviction. Jenna comments in one scene that she "had Michael figured out in thirty minutes" when she first met him, but she forgets that.
Perhaps director Tony Goldwyn and screenwriter Paul Haggis thought it would be clever to inject a bit of humor into nearly every scene, that it would somehow lighten the deadly serious mood of much of the goings-on. Whatever his reasoning, far too many lines evoke an hilarity — unintentional or no — that throws off the dramatic coordination of the multifarious plot. Kim's utterly serious declaration to Michael that she "may be your last chance at happiness" rings false, leading to chuckles from the audience (and from myself) in the screening I attended.
Yet moments of brilliance pop up unexpectedly, both in the artfully constructed soundtrack — like Garden State's, a melange of pop songs old and new — and in certain shots and montages, the most notable occurring early on as we watch a series of couples, all in different, equally unhappy stages of dissatisfaction, settling down for the night while Rachael Yamagata's "Reason Why" plays softly overhead. In that moment, The Last Kiss was perfect, but alas, such an ephemeral thing defies Mr. Braff's mighty efforts to sustain it for the film's nearly two-hour running time.
I have endeavored above to provide a sketch of the film's emotional center, but I have thus far ignored much of what The Last Kiss spends its screen minutes showing us. I have ignored the troubles between Jenna's parents and among Michael and Jenna's various friends, all of whom have their own, separate subplots, for one reason: they add little to nothing to what I believe Mr. Braff is attempting to convey here. Danner's wild overacting ruins her potentially interesting character, and a late-stage change of heart by Wilkinson strains his character's credibility unacceptably. And we just don't care enough about the other characters to wonder what might become of them once their rickety RV makes it to Tierra del Fuego (the film certainly doesn't tell us).
What an interesting film this is, but what an odd one also. The Last Kiss leaves wide open the question of what, exactly, Mr. Braff tapped into in his first Hollywood venture and whether he will ever manage to distill it better than he has previously. It is impossible to recommend this film as a high quality piece of cinema, but that is not to say that it is not worth a viewing. Moviegoing is about celebrating the excellent, yes, but it is also about experiencing the unknown; there is plenty of uncharted territory in The Last Kiss for intrepid cinephiles to savor.