`Kiss' full of humor, drama

October 04, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Gabriele Muccino's The Last Kiss stops your heart and keeps your belly jiggling with laughter. It's an improbably sunny tragicomedy. While the picture plunges to the limits of romantic disappointment, Muccino and his ensemble never cease to emit a buzz of life-replenishing energy.

The movie elegantly traces the stumbling steps of some Roman buddies nearing 30. Like the fellows in Fellini's I Vitelloni or Barry Levinson's Diner, they reinforce each other's insecurities about becoming full-fledged men and accepting the challenges of wedlock, jobs and raising children. Muccino focuses in like a cinematic homing signal on everybody's need for ardor. The plot may be a soap opera, but Muccino emphasizes the opera part.

The unmarried central couple, Carlo (Stefano Accorsi) and Guilia (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), together for three years, announce they're having a baby just when Carlo has begun to feel that the life has gone out of their relationship. Guilia's pregnancy sets off a panic in her mother (Stefania Sandrelli): It makes her feel more than ever that her marriage to a taciturn psychiatrist is stagnant and emotionally depleting. And Carlo, feeling the pressure of impending fatherhood, suddenly falls under the spell of a fetching 18-year-old (Martine Stella).

There's a musical-comedy element to the proceedings: Carlo, who is pretty fresh-faced himself, with a good job in an ad agency, for some reason has the effect of a rock star on this pure, earnest, Siddhartha-reading high school girl. Watching him experience intense flattery, I kept thinking of the Elvis lookalike in Bye Bye Birdie making a show out of a high school girl giving him "one last kiss."

But The Last Kiss combines giddiness and weight. Carlo experiences real ecstasy with his teen heartthrob, along with throes of conscience. And this is the rare pathos-tinged farce in which every supporting character deepens and enriches the action, including that seductive, surprisingly strong girl, who yearns for a grand passion.

All of Carlo's friends are struggling to break out of a stationary whirl: one (Giorgio Pasotti) can't take the body-and-soul marital commitment and the fatigue and time demands of having a baby; another (Marco Cocci) has made promiscuity a principle. The most vivid and forlorn of them is Paolo (Claudio Santamaria): He clings to intense feelings for a past lover who belittles him; he tries to resist entering a family business despite the guilt bearing down on him from his ailing father. The fates of the friends and lovers connect without the grinding cogs of a farce machine.

Under Muccino's fluid direction - a controlled flood of passion and insight - they occupy individual whirlpools that tumble into each other and pull us into a vortex of humor and drama. We may not respect each of their feelings, but we do respect their need to feel. Paolo reaches for his lost love like a drowning man grasping for a rope just out of reach. Yes, he may be a self-dramatist. All of them are, with their ridiculous youthful affectations of lip-rings and nose-rings and their celebrations of raucousness for its own sake. They pop champagne and howl at the moon and declare that they'll never grow fat and unhappy.

But their desperation is authentic. When Paolo's father dies, the event brings home what an awful feat it can be for a son to preserve his own integrity and withstand the gravitational pull of family tradition. Muccino always sees the humor amid the storm clouds.

It's at Paolo's, on the night of his father's death, that Guilia learns of Carlo's straying. Her anger is electrifying and awesome, comically amiss in the funereal setting. Muccino goes right after mixtures of feelings that other directors sidestep or huff and puff over. When Guilia's mom lunges at the one lover she's had in 30 years of marriage, she's both stirring and pathetic. Muccino honors all of his characters by taking them seriously - including silly Carlo, who at the ripe old age of 29 wants to feel 10 years younger.

In The Last Kiss, people give all sorts of dubious advice to each other - whether about escaping to Africa like Huck Finn lighting out for the Territories, or about the necessity to find joy in compromise. But we see the confusion and longing beneath each direct statement, and the flickerings of hope and doubt in the character's eyes. The glory and the audacity of kinship, friendship, and, of course, marriage (Muccino seems to say) lies in recognizing how divergent even the most simpatico people must be if they are also full, volatile human beings.

The Last Kiss can't be reduced to a message. It says you can't seal off the human factor in any aspect of life. Not even with one last kiss.

The Last Kiss

Starring Stefano Accorsi, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Stefania Sandrelli

Directed by Gabriele Muccino

Rated R (language, sexuality, some drug use)

Released by ThinkFilm

Time 117 minutes

SUN SCORE * * * *

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