The Last Kiss (2006)

[15 September 2006]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

My crisis awaits

At last, a movie about men who can’t commit and women who must. 

To be fair, Tony Goldwyn’s The Last Kiss is upfront about its status as repetition A remake of Gabriele Muccino’s L’Ultimo Bacio (2001), it features an assortment of complicated friendships and competitions that more or translate from Italia to Madison, Wisconsin, mostly young white, upper-middle-classy couples who worry about futures that seem simultaneously mapped out and unknowable. But while the coupling occasions drama and comedy—hence the clunky descriptor, “dramedy”—it also occasions that most tedious differentiation between genders: men want freedom and women want babies.

The Last Kiss offers an assortment of men in crisis, primarily Michael (Zach Braff), a pleasant-seeming architect whose impending fatherhood, with his “perfect” girlfriend Jenna (Jacinda Barrett), has him imagining a life with “no surprises.” Following her announcement of their good news, Michael sits frozen at her parents’ dinner table, his voice-over narrating what you already know: “So far, I have to say that my life is turned out pretty much as I imagined.”  The camera pushes in on his face, plainly panicked, but no one around him sees. Instead, white-dressed flutterer Anna (Blythe Danner) and laconic shrink Stephen (Tom Wilkinson) pop the champagne and suppress their own anxieties at the fate about to befall precious, beaming Jenna.

Later that night in their bedroom, Jenna does note Michael’s very visible tension, asking whether he worries that the child is unplanned, that their lives are about to change so drastically. He reassures her, insisting that he loves her and the child and what’s about to happen. You know he doesn’t, or more accurately, that “the baby” makes his probably sincere love for the utterly lovable Jenna irrelevant.

In part, Michael is alarmed by another vision of “the baby,” offered by the very visible meltdown of Chris (Casey Affleck), whose marriage to Lisa (Lauren Lee Smith) is in tatters now that they have an infant. As the movie mostly takes the boys’ points of view, Lisa never appears on screen without their wailing baby on her hip and/or demanding that Chris help her, because she is—always—exhausted. Seen from his perspective, Lisa and the baby are almost frightening: they wait outside the bathroom door for his emergence, while he hides his face in his hands, worrying at his own resentment, wanting more than anything to return to an existence without diapers and feeding schedules.

This former existence is embodied most abundantly by Kenny (Eric Christian Olsen), who brings a different girl home every night. At 29 years old, he happily tends bar in town, his long hair and buff body emblems of his refusal to “grow up.” While Michael and Chris envy Kenny’s seeming lack of fear (or, lack of reasons to be afraid, as he seems a master of his domain), they also fear having no fear. They are more like—or more comfortable with—their other friend, Izzy (Michael Weston), currently so desperate over his lost love Arianna (Marley Shelton) that he begs her to take him back. As Michael and Chris watch in horror, Izzy blubbers in public (at yet another friend’s wedding), “How can you be so blind? This should have been us!”

When Arianna goes on to sleep with a guy she meets at the wedding, Izzy is beside himself, marching into her home and punching the guy, who stands about like the prop that he is, skinny and startled in his snug briefs. At the same time, Izzy rather admires the fact that Kenny meets a girl at the wedding and takes her home: while Izzy sits on the living room sofa, pondering a road trip, Kenny and Danielle (Cindy Sampson) have athletic sex in the bedroom, emerging at last to display their post-coital sheen and drink Budweisers. Izzy asks his buddy to accompany him on his trip, but Kenny won’t even think of it. “My life is perfect here. Why would I leave?”

Kenny’s “perfect” is quite different from the intimidating version personified by Jenna. But both are proved equally illusory, shattered by different sorts of crises. Kenny’s is mostly comic, as his freedom looks threatened by a girl who introduces him to her parents (a familiar plot turn in movies of this sort that needs to be retired). Jenna’s is multi-faceted, dramatic, and treated in the film as subsidiary to Michael’s—a treatment that more or less makes the point, again, that women (in movies of this sort) exist to support men.

One part of Jenna’s crisis has to do with her perfect-seeming parents. But come to find out that Anna and Stephen, after 30 years of marriage, really have little to do with one another. While the film stages this as a matter of her fidelity when Anna revisits an old lover (Harold Ramis), the problem for her is Stephen, who meets her every expression of concern with a comment that seems droll to him. The movie doesn’t explore their relationship except to set it as an example of what can go wrong, and leaves Jenna’s upset over it mostly off-screen.

Instead, her preprimary focus for rage and frustration is Michael, who finds a way to thwart their coupled perfection in the form of Kim (Rachel Bilson), a lovely college junior who takes an inexplicable liking to him. When she offers herself as his “last chance at happiness,” he seems to believe her, even though the line is as clichéd as the mix-tape CD she makes for him. Michael, being a cliché himself, doesn’t quite see the irony, but the movie makes sure that you do. Such irony, it appears, is the way of the gendered world: partly funny, partly grim, and thank goodness for the willingness of women to be “longsuffering.”

Throughout The Last Kiss, men make choices, some poor, some inevitable, and women wait for them to decide. Michael explains an especially bad decision to Jenna—and to her father, who spends a few moments trying to set him straight—as a function of his being “afraid.” Neither Jenna nor Stephen accepts this as a thoughtful self-explanation or insight. And yet, this is where the movie leaves Michael and every other man in sight: they will remain afraid and their women will put up with them.

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