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Love, American Style

Remake of Italian prizewinner retains spirit of original

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A major award winner both at Sundance and in its Italian homeland, 2001's The Last Kiss (L'Ultimo Bacio) tackles the topic of relationships in such a straightforward and emotionally honest manner that by the end, it's impossible to ascertain whether the film is, at its core, deeply pessimistic or quietly hopeful.

An American remake would naturally be expected to dumb down the entire experience and leave viewers whistling their way out of the theater, confident that all was right in the world of amore. But that's not exactly what happens with the new stateside take on The Last Kiss. To a startling degree, this version retains many of the prickly elements that made the original so memorable; it only falters at the very end, and even then by a far lesser degree than one would reasonably expect. And where there are changes, they don't seem to be dictated by marketing concerns but rather by the differences between the Italian and American lifestyles.

Helmed by Tony Goldwyn and penned by current "It" screenwriter Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash), The Last Kiss places its primary focus on the relationship between Michael (Zach Braff) and Jenna (Jacinda Barrett). Michael is about to turn 30 and elects to have his mid-life crisis about a decade earlier than planned. He's deeply in love with his longtime girlfriend Jenna, but once she announces that she's pregnant, he freaks out, deciding that he's not prepared to cope with either being a husband or being a father. It isn't that he feels he would be incompetent at either duty; it's just that he believes he's too young to have the rest of his life mapped out, with no more surprises awaiting him anywhere down the path toward retirement and, ultimately, the grave. Jenna isn't privy to any of this -- she thinks everything is going along swimmingly -- so she has no reason to suspect that Michael met another woman when she wasn't looking. Kim (Rachel Bilson), a college student who's perpetually perky, spots Michael at a wedding and is instantly attracted to him. Initially, Michael feebly fights off her advances, but soon he's the one dropping by the campus to see her and making plans to attend a party with her. So far, so relatively benign, but will Michael be strong enough to resist sleeping with her?

Michael isn't the only one confused about his romantic lot in life. Chris (Casey Affleck) is already married, yet neither he nor his wife (Lauren Lee Smith) are living happily ever after. They thought having a baby would bring them closer together, but that proved to be a major miscalculation. Meanwhile, Izzy (Michael Weston) has just been dumped by his girlfriend (Marley Shelton) and, after stalking her for a spell, decides his best course of action is to simply leave town. And Kenny (Eric Christian Olsen) is only interested in the sex, meaning he's delighted when he meets his female equivalent (Cindy Sampson). But his rapture over their sexual gymnastics eventually thuds to the mat once she decides he should meet her parents.

Of course, rocky relationships aren't the exclusive property of 20-somethings, so the film also details how Jenna's mom (Blythe Danner) has grown tired of being married for decades to what she feels is an inattentive and emotionally stifled man (Tom Wilkinson); she contemplates leaving him, even as her own daughter insists that she's too old to make such a move.

The situations presented here are strikingly similar to the ones on display in the Italian original, which means that this film rarely backs away from confronting thorny situations head-on. If there's a key difference, it's in the personalities of these various players. The characters in L'Ultimo Bacio felt in every sense like real adults, grown people with a passion for life and, for the most part, a determination to ultimately face up to their own shortcomings. This latest Kiss, on the other hand, fits more comfortably into the niche of recent films that portray the American male as a man-child incapable of achieving and/or sustaining the level of maturity and clear-eyed vision enjoyed by his female counterpart. In movies like Trust the Man, The Break-Up and Old School, the men are such clods that it's a wonder even the most desperate women would put up with them, let alone the brainy beauties they're partnered with in these pictures. The Last Kiss at least makes these couplings more believable -- we can especially see the appeal of Michael, even when he's being a dolt -- though it's clear our sympathies should rest with the long-suffering women. That includes college cutie Kim, who's unexpectedly allowed to experience real pangs of young love rather than merely be painted as a shallow party animal.

The final sequence is more open-ended than what's typically served up in American films of this nature, yet I still found myself wishing it had gone farther. It's been 3-1/2 years since I've seen L'Ultimo Bacio (brought to town by the Charlotte Film Society), yet what's stuck with me the most is the nicely ambiguous coda that not only drolly illustrates the dilemma of keeping any given relationship perennially fresh but also beautifully tips the balance in the story's central skirmish between the sexes. The Last Kiss inexplicably lops off this epilogue, and it's a regrettable omission. In this instance, imitation wouldn't just have been the sincerest form of flattery; it would also have been the most logical.

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