Gabriele Muccino’s “L’ultimo bacio” was one of the more invigorating Italian imports of recent years, not because of its plot, which was basically a soap opera about four thirty-something buddies struggling toward maturity, and the women in their lives, but by reason of its style–exuberant, passionate, constantly on the move. Unfortunately Tony Goldwyn’s Hollywood remake retains the narrative but loses the vitality. Like his previous directorial effort, “A Walk on the Moon” (1999), it’s careful, lethargic and ponderously self-important. Muccino’s film was a deliciously surprising, high-spirited dance; Goldwyn’s is a dreary dirge.
Paul Haggis, the much-praised screenwriter of both “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash” (as well as director of the latter), stumbles badly this time around, not only turning Muccino’s lean, loose script into English but Americanizing it into a sadly typical blend of morose relationship tale and second-rate sitcom. The centerpiece is again an unmarried couple who’ve been living together for a while and are now expecting a child–here architect Michael (Zach Braff) and graduate student Jenna (Jacinda Barrett), living in Madison, Wisconsin–where her parents Anna (Blythe Danner) and Stephen (Tom Wilkinson), a psychiatrist, also reside. Michael and Jenna are ostensibly happy, but he in fact is frightened that with the baby the “surprising” part of his life will be over, and so he slips into a quickie relationship with a twenty-year old co-ed named Kim (Rachel Bilson), who for some unfathomable reason comes on to the sad-sack fellow. This leads to a frightful row when Jenna finds out about his infidelity. And simultaneously Anna, apparently in the throes of a mid-life crisis, turns against the placid, undemonstrative Stephen.
Around these two troubled couples are arrayed a trio of Michael’s old buddies. There’s quiet Chris (Casey Affleck), who works beside Michael in the architectural firm–an unhappily married fellow always bickering with his wife over his failure to do his bit in caring for their infant son. And Kenny (Eric Christian Olsen), a bartender and flamboyant Lothario who quakes at the mere thought of commitment and tries to bed a new conquest every night. And Izzy (Michael Weston), a dippy fellow who still lives with his parents and been dumped by his long-time girlfriend, whom he still obsesses over and stalks. It’s he who finally decides not only to break out of his rut and go off on a journey of discovery, but to persuade his pals to break free, too–before it’s too late for them all.
All this follows the basic template of Muccino’s original, but the treatment couldn’t be more different. The Italian film went off like a spray of fireworks, moving at a fever pitch and using wonderfully fluid camerawork to give the plot verve and style. By comparison this picture is a damp squib, somber and phlegmatic, and marked by dull, washed-out cinematography (by Tom Stern), with oppressively cramped , close-in compositions perhaps dictated by the location shooting, and by Goldwyn’s flaccid direction, which robs it of all energy. Goldwyn’s contribution–and Haggis’ obvious writing–rob it of subtlety, too, and put the cast at a decided disadvantage. The person who suffers most is Danner, who comes off as a total wacko in a terribly conceived role, but most of the others aren’t far behind (or ahead). Braff, looking like a younger Ray Romano, comes across as soporific and dull, and Weston and Olsen are mostly irritating. Barrett can’t make sense of Jenna, nor Bilson of Kim, though both try hard. The only players to emerge relatively unscathed are Affleck, whose understated charm gets him past the part’s obstacles, and Wilkinson, who underplays Stephen beautifully.
The characters in “The Last Kiss” are all miserable, each in his own way. Watching the movie, we are, too. Do yourself a favor: skip this and rent “L’ultimo bacio” unless you have an invincible phobia against subtitles.