ZERO STARS/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras D
starring Zach Braff, Jacinda Barrett, Casey Affleck, Tom Wilkinson
screenplay by Paul Haggis, based on the screenplay for L'Ultimo Bacio by Gabriele Muccino
directed by Tony Goldwyn
TRUST THE MAN
½/**** Image A- Sound C Extras D
starring Billy Crudup, David Duchovny, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Julianne Moore
written and directed by Bart Freundlich
by Walter Chaw Zach Braff's auto-elevation into the rarefied air of Ed Burnsian self-satisfaction has required a fraction of the smarmcoms, if a meaningful assist from an obscenely-popular TV show that's running on fumes at this point. Garden State is dreadful, of course, swarming with awkward, overwritten, creepy alt-folk montages and pocket epiphanies (just like "Scrubs", albeit with half the rage and exploitation of frailty), but team up former "The Facts of Life" scribe (and Oscar-winning screenwriter) Paul Haggis with instant-brand Braff--he's like sea monkeys: just add grease--for The Last Kiss and discover in the alchemy a more pungent, twice-as-stale vintage of a type of picture that used to be done with grace and wit by people like Whit Stillman and Hal Hartley, cheapened by noxious voice-overs and skeezy dialogues obsessed with the female orgasm without having the honesty to actually show one. What we get instead is the idea that this shit sells to a privileged "indie"-craving hipster demographic oblivious to the fact that "indie" films are as homogenous a ghetto as any other now. (Independent of what? Alternative to what?) There's nothing genuine about these "relationshit" flicks (thanks to blogger John Landis for the term); they're a sloppily-baited hook dangling in a waitlisted stucco bistro.
Braff is prototypical emo yuppie Michael, who, on the eve of tying the knot with lovely Jenna (Jacinda Barrett), meets a free-spirit skank (Kim (Rachel Bilson)) and almost (or successfully) ruins everything in the pursuit of fresh tail. Inevitably, The Last Kiss will be about either learning that what's really important is a stale monogamous existence (My Best Friend's Wedding) or learning that the fiancée is a bitch/whore much better off with an accountant than with our architect/ad exec/artist hero, thus freeing the latter to commit adultery as he pleases (or, more likely, retroactively excusing his infedility). If it's wish-fulfillment, it's a pretty ugly variety of it--but more often than not, the relationshit pic boils down to endless pop-culture/pop-psych conversations punctuated by faux-emotional spikes and walking/shopping/raining montages scored with the tops of the vagina charts. Count The Last Kiss as a film that treats its women characters as the entire Greek pantheon of hysterical goddesses, from a flat-crazy mother (Blythe Danner in a series of ironed housecoats) pining after an old flame to our collegiate temptress (who, for no earthly reason, is mightily attracted to thirtysomething milquetoast Michael), to finally our damsel in distress Jenna, three months pregnant (her hormones blamed more than once for her behaviour--and she agrees!) and ready to pull a knife on Michael when he cops to snogging his clueless stalker.
It's inauthentic, to say the least. Not a scene of it plays quite right, and as The Last Kiss couldn't be considered obscure, the only thing left to think is that it's incompetent--a failed test of a limited writer trying on quirk and once again proving most at home with facile characterizations and pat, hermetically-sealed traps that pose unlikely scenarios with predetermined outcomes. Hyperbolic, epic, screeching disintegrations are the spine of this soppy melodrama, the winner of which is the eternally-slumming Tom Wilkinson, cast as a cold fish for being a grown-up in what used to be an adolescent coming-of-age set-up (Michael does everything short of lifting a boombox over his head to win back his lady fair): a grown-up with a normal speaking voice, a reluctance to feel sorry for himself, and a paucity of Byronic one-whiners. Based on a bad-but-not-this-bad Italian film, The Last Kiss distinguishes itself as unusually poor because its metaphors for arrested adolescence range wide and slapdash. A subplot involving slut Kenny (Eric Christian Olsen) and his acrobatic single-guy sexual exploits rings indescribably lecherous--it's like you're watching an awful Noah Baumbach ripper when suddenly Cinemax soft-porn breaks out. Exactly like. And by the time chinless, overcast Michael finally shtups bat-faced cyborg Kim, you've developed such a dislike for both of them that it's not merely unerotic, it's downright irritating. A literally sodden finale is likewise so aggravating that the only thought that crossed my mind as it unfolded was if or where Michael was taking a piss during his interminable, creepy, Coldplay-narrated vigil.
Say this for Bart Freundlich's Trust the Man: even if you wonder about the pissing habits of Billy Crudup's Tobey, it's not at the climax/resolution of the picture. The eternally-arrested adolescents in this particular morose fit of compulsive yak are Tobey and his brother-in-law Tom (David Duchovny, at least not writing/directing this one), who through childish inclinations sabotage their relationships with women they don't deserve in the first place before rescuing them with equally childish demonstrations. Tobey doesn't want to get too serious with aspiring children's-book author Elaine (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Mr. Mom Tom wants constant intercourse with his glamorous actress wife Rebecca (Julianne Moore, Freundlich's glamorous actress wife). The two couples separate and find unfulfilling love in the arms of joke paramours because real contenders for affection and respect are complicated to write and resolve; and in the end, all these people we've decided we don't like, much less identify with, end up back together so as to breed adorable, Annie Hall-dressed, poop-obsessed moppets. Freundlich isn't as poor a writer as Haggis, though he does suffer from the same sick desire to patly resolve his romantic frictions. It makes Trust the Man (and The Myth of Fingerprints and World Traveler) almost more disappointing because the clouds unerringly part for a moment or two in Freundlich's pictures, offering a glimpse of a guy who may not be a complete snag but still can't resist chasing the path of least resistance whenever a scene gets tangled. That feeling is called "betrayal," as you're led to feel confident about a director's ability to guide a ship to a far, strange shore only to discover, amid an Ephron sisters chain of faux-delightful contrivances, that the hull's been compromised since leaving port.
The Last Kiss arrives on DVD courtesy Paramount-owned DreamWorks in competing widescreen and fullscreen editions; we received the former for review. The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is surprisingly soft and murky, though saturation and contrast are largely irreproachable. Meanwhile, blaring DD 5.1 audio facilitates another tour of Braff's Starbucks HearMusic CD collection. Overlap between the music in this, Garden State, and "Scrubs" suggests two things: that as soundtrack guys go, Braff is neither Tarantino nor Wes Anderson (hell, he's not even Cameron Crowe); and that twelve CDs don't stretch very far. That being said, a listening option with the songs isolated in a 90-minute VH1 medley and none of Braff's vapid thousand-yard-stare narration would obviously be the preferred track. Onward, Braff and director/bad-guy-from-Ghost Tony Goldwyn fill a film-length yakker with inane observations, too much praise for the project, and a lot of self-congratulation for the "realism" and "truth" embedded in Haggis's--quoting myself--"artificial" and "ridiculous" script.
In a second yak-track, this one featuring, in addition to Braff and Goldwyn, Barrett, Bilson, Michael Weston (the guy who terrorizes David in the fourth season of "Six Feet Under"), and Olsen, is cacophonous and completely unhelpful save one telling moment where Barrett calls out an early, sleazy, totally unnecessary scene at a bachelor party as "out of tone" and jarring. The others immediately lapse into silence, marking Barrett as pretty sharp despite all the garbage she agrees to appear in and Goldwyn, et al as shallow and slow-thinkers incapable of defending their puerility in the face of a direct, pithy challenge from within. Braff and Goldwyn try to restore good humour to the proceedings by identifying which strippers they hired and with whom they were in love and how great it is to watch prostitutes pretend to pleasure one another for money. As proof of Barrett's professionalism and, incidentally, as a way to marginalize her opinions for the rest of the commentary, Braff reveals that she invited him to grab her tits in an early make-out scene. What a guy.
In Braff's defense, his attempts at wit throughout the two yakkers (and in a 3-minute Gag Reel) are amazingly feeble for someone banking on a reputation of pomo droll--he might, in other words, be too stupid to consider that objectifying Barrett immediately after she's objected to objectification would have the kind of chilling effect that it does. Braff's an asshole--but call him an accidental asshole if you like. The Last Kiss compounds its offenses with a series of four glad-handing featurettes. "Filmmaker's Perspective" (3 mins.) spends a couple of minutes on the producer's and Goldwyn's mutual fondness for the original Italian film, while "Getting Together" (27 mins.) spends almost a half-hour blathering on about how much everyone respects one another. (A solemn thirty-second circle jerk would've accomplished the same.) "Behind Our Favorite Scenes" (8 mins.) is a shorter version of the commentary tracks and "Last Thoughts" (3 mins.) expresses again how lucky these jolly sojourners were in undertaking this grand quest into the dark heart of relational dynamics. Two puzzling alternate endings (included among seven deleted scenes) are the same brand of syrup with different varietals of sap, and Braff--who might as well have directed the film proper--introduces the video for Cary Brothers' "Ride," which he did direct. Forced trailers for Dreamgirls, Babel, Jackass Number Two, World Trade Center, An Inconvenient Truth, and The Last Kiss round out the platter.
Fox's 2.35:1, 16x9-enhanced DVD presentation of Trust the Man demonstrates that in the modern era of filmmaking, it doesn't take much to produce a picture that looks like a million bucks. Of course, it helps that the man behind the viewfinder here was savant cinematographer Tim Orr, who imbues every calorie of warmth that exists in the picture with his easy, snug compositions. (Also overqualified for a relationshit pic is composer Clint Mansell, whose score comes through as the lone bit of atmosphere on an overqualified DD 5.1 soundtrack.) Freundlich and Duchovny combine their soporific superpowers on a feature-length yakker long on ancillary anecdotes and eager to pay compliments, at wet length, to the stupende-awsome-riffic cast; Freundlich will also stop the stream to trainspot random people ("Hey, wait, that's my trainer!"), observe that James Le Gros is the only actor to have appeared in each of his films, and provide Duchovny the necessary space to note where the actor laughed out loud as he read the script. Freundlich also recalls asking Mansell to be "more melodic" in his score, distilling in two words why his own sensibilities suck ass.
Four deleted scenes (10 minutes in toto), again with Duchovny/Freundlich commentary, are useless with or without editorial, though we learn that all were dear, dear artifacts so terribly difficult to elide. Hard for me to believe that a bit with Duchovny fretting over his vibrating testicles was a treasure for anyone. Flip the disc to unearth a fullscreen incarnation of the film (it was shot in Super35, meaning this viewing option is not quite pan-and-scan, not quite open-matte) as well as "Reel Love: The Making of Trust the Man" (13 mins.), in which Moore theorizes that hubby Bart was going for a relationship drama and Duchovny muses that the flick's a little like those old, non-sucky Woody Allen movies. Funny that Freundlich opens with the confession that he based Trust the Man on those same Woodman flicks: It's possible that the piece was cut as ineptly as the film itself, but maybe there simply isn't a lot to say about a cheap Woody Allen knock-off. Originally published: February 14, 2007.