Zach Braff and his Last Kiss co-stars all agree their film is the quintessential modern morality tale, with an unparalleled understanding of young couplehood in the ‘00s. The source of much of this raving has to do with the film’s apparently scorching honesty: it’s unafraid, Braff says on the new DVD commentary, to present “the ultimate flawed protagonist”, at the mercy of “lust, ego, and fear.” To hear Braff and co. tell it, the grown up world is a series of temptations and our susceptibility to these temptations only confirms our humanness.
Michael (Braff) is susceptible here to seductive Kim (Rachel Bilson), who he meets at a friend’s wedding. Soon, Michael, about to be a father with “perfect” girlfriend Jenna (Jacinda Barrett), begins what becomes a lusty affair with Kim, and moves rapidly from discussing home loans and baby names to dirty dancing in clubs and bumping groins in car parks. He lies to Jenna, his friends, and, eventually, even his mistress. For Michael, a few stolen kisses are worth sacrificing his integrity. But perhaps he knows something we don’t, as Jenna winds up forgiving him. He only has to sleep on the porch for a few days and he’s back in the good books, end of story. If only it were all so simple.
But Jenna’s mercy is not the shocking part. Throughout the commentaries and “making of” segments of the DVD, it is revealed that everyone involved with this film from the young stars to the middle-aged writer (Paul Haggis) and director (Tony Goldwyn) through to 60-plus co-star Blythe Danner side with Michael. They might not agree with his actions, but they certainly offer him a frightening amount of understanding. Barrett calls Jenna’s forgiveness “profound”, while Danner praises it as an understanding of the shortness of life. As in, life is too short not to forgive, and also too short, apparently, to bother finding someone slightly more honorable to spend it with.
Perhaps the problem here is not with Michael’s actions, but the film’s handling of them. The character undertakes his affair and realizes his error in a matter of days. It goes like this: Michael flirts with Kim, they toss out a few kisses, Jenna finds out, gets mad, and Michael goes off and finally seals the deal with Kim (integrity schmintegrity, but, keep in mind, this is all supposed to be so painfully realistic). Michael is given absolutely no time to develop beyond Stereotypical Afraid-of-Commitment-Guy. We never quite understand his motivations for risking everything with Jenna. Similarly, we never really know why Jenna takes him back. All we see is Michael surviving the elements on Jenna’s doorstep for the aforementioned few nights until magically the door opens and all appears well. (The original film ends with the Michael character lying to his girlfriend about sleeping with his mistress—an ending with far greater impact.) As for Michael’s motivations, Braff and Goldwyn sum it up with a simple “how could any man resist” excuse during lingering shots of Bilson’s hard belly.
The DVD extras are not the place to search for any real answers here. Braff and Goldwyn spend much of their commentary making super self-aware jokes in order to demonstrate their cleverness and Hollywood-insider knowledge over any deep explorations of their film. When they do attempt explanation, their conclusions are just bizarre. Braff points out that Michael’s deceptions were key to his taking the role. He talks about the film’s bravery in presenting this unreliable protagonist, but never mentions it’s cowardice in changing the film’s original ending and making Michael near saint-like.
But no one here wants to give Michael a hard time. “This movie has the courage to tell it like it is,” announces producer Gary Lucchesi without elaboration (does this mean the French film told it like it isn’t?) It’s “evolved”, Jacinda Barrett dribbles, to say that human beings make mistakes, as if this might be the first film to explore such an idea. Even less is said about the characters themselves, apart from these sadistic gems: “[She] has the power of her sexuality and she uses it,” Braff says, shifting some of the blame for the affair off Michael. And if that wasn’t bad enough, check out Goldwyn’s justification for Michael’s behavior: “[Some people go] to the darker corners in order to experience their life, and those are the people that interest me.”
There’s nothing wrong with recognizing our frailties, but when we start using the inability to accept responsibility as an excuse for our every stupid act, we’re headed into a different, dangerous area. This is not a revised look at new-young-adult ideals: it’s an age-old crock. It’s an argument for male angst: Boys cheat and lie and shouldn’t have to change diapers, and girls are either nags, bores, or cock teases with little purpose beyond stifling a guy’s right to unconditional freedom. All The Last Kiss does is cement the ballsiness of it’s predecessor, and prove Haggis’s forgiveness-heavy reworking an irresponsible cop-out.