Take Two

by Luke Bumgarten & r & & r & The Last Kiss & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he Last Kiss is an attempt at condensing and universalizing the experience of a newish breed of twentysomething. It fails badly. It's often very raw (not unlike The Break Up) and occasionally very funny, but it's not enough.

The problem involves the two main characters. Well, no, that's not true. The real problem is a third character, Kim (Rachel Bilson). No, that's not right either... Start over: the seed of the problem is floating around in screenwriter Paul Haggis' head. Kim's the water, soil and sunlight. Michael (Zach Braff) and Jenna (Jacinda Barrett) -- a heretofore happy couple who, after skipping marriage and heading straight to unplanned pregnancy, are twisted in all sorts of knots over the sudden lack of freedom they have -- are the problem in full bloom.

Haggis is more fascinated with archetypes than with people. He wants to talk about the way certain types of people deal with certain types of events. So, he creates characters out of vast, myopic generalizations that are meant to unite huge swaths of humanity, making his characters nothing more than placeholders for each audience member to fill with his or her experience.

It's a dirty little proclivity that worked to his advantage in Crash, what with L.A.'s ethnic strife and the happy similarities between archetypes, stereotypes and bigotry (and the easy though crude lines to be drawn between black culture, Latin culture, Islamic culture and white culture, between the rich and poor), and in Million Dollar Baby, with its easy to delineate (penis versus no penis) gender role deconstruction. There are no such easy generalities here. There's only Michael and Jenna. Both white, both raised in suburbia, both comfortable.

Haggis doesn't have a clue about the things and people he's trying to represent. (He's trying to represent me, by the way -- my generation, my socioeconomic milieu, my viewpoint. He doesn't understand us as individuals and he doesn't understand us as a group.) Thus Braff and Barrett aren't people; they're the perceived value set of a generation. They're supposed to represent all of us. Or at least I hope they are; that's the only way their motiveless actions make any sense. And since Michael has no real motives, it's impossible to set him off on his journey without a kick. Enter Kim.

Kim's a psychological personification, essentially -- a prime mover masquerading as a plucky, awkward, sexy character foil. She's plopped down -- in the middle of Michael's friend's wedding, ominously -- like the ghost of promiscuous erections past, and sets about the task of seducing Michael before they ever meet. She exists only to reinforce and embody the longing youth he's about to lose.

There's a line to be toed between inchoate universality and alienating specificity. The satellite characters often toe it nicely -- I'd love to watch a film about Jenna's parents or Michael's loser buddies, because both groups burst with human quirks. But Michael and Jenna are hopeless EveryPeople. They're complete ciphers -- which is more than I can say for poor, metaphorical Kim.

This is my own generation, but it's unrecognizable to me. Like that half-alarmed, half-amused Time cover story on us, the Twixters, The Last Kiss is a bunch of generational outsiders failing to understand our motivations. It'd be insulting if it weren't so earnest. But it's still a misguided attempt. ("I got an idea, guys, maybe it's this new breakneck pace of life that's driving them cuh-ray-zee.") It'd be insulting if it weren't so quaint.

Haggis' first job was writing for One Day at a Time. Director Tony Goldwyn is a veteran of television and a slave to clich & eacute; (watch his sex scenes if you don't believe me: his face, her face, long shot, thrust). Perhaps inevitably, then, the relationship at the center of The Last Kiss feels shallow like daytime TV.