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September 28, 2006

Goodbye to All That

Old Joy, The Last Kiss and the farewell to friendship


Friends forever? (L-R) Jacinda Barrett and Zach Braff in The Last Kiss; Daniel London and Will Oldham in Old Joy (Photos: Paramount Pictures / Kino International)

Scheduling two movies back to back doesn't necessarily mean you'll see anything similar in them, but sometimes a coincidental double feature can provide surprising connections. Their New York release dates (and my screening calendar) ended up pairing in my mind Kelly Reichardt's excellent second feature Old Joy and the Zach Braff romantic dramedy, The Last Kiss, even though before their screenings they couldn't have seemed more different. While their visual and emotional tones aren't the same--the former is an art house independent, the latter a by-the-book studio picture--they are, in a way, both anti-comedies, not about the process of falling in love and getting married, but the everyday business of two people staying together. In fact, the moments when these movies really work are in the seemingly throwaway scenes, the ones showing the way couples build their private twosomes and exclude their platonic friends.

Old Joy opens with a silent couple puttering around their Portland home and the telephone ringing. On the other end of the line, Mark's friend Kurt proposes a two-day road trip into the surrounding mountains to visit a hot spring. But before Mark can agree to the trip, he tells Kurt's disembodied voice that he first has to check with his wife Tanya, her pregnant frame hovering next to him. This ordinary act of deferment results in one of those awkwardly real fights that directors like John Cassavetes or Mike Leigh have occasionally captured on film, as actors Daniel London and Tanya Smith debate (in the terse language of two people who know each other's motives all too well) whether Mark will go or not. It's a moment that's incredibly cutting in its banality, and it comes mere moments into the film.

And while Tanya doesn't reappear physically on screen, her presence hangs spectrally throughout Mark and Kurt's trip; later, whenever she calls Mark to check in, his hushed whispering into his cell phone instantly undercuts any bond the two old friends might be forming. Even though it's never spoken aloud between them, it seems to be a rekindling of their connection that Kurt is seeking on their trip into the woods. But in the movie's final mournful scenes--when Mark disappears homeward and Kurt is alone again on Portland's nighttime streets--it's clear that it is not to be. Although the characters don't explictly state it as either the question at hand or the point of their trip, Mark is choosing the bond with Tanya over his with Kurt.

The Last Kiss mirrors this schism but possesses but a fraction of Old Joy's emotional subtlety. Braff and his childhood friends are pushing 30 in suburban Wisconsin and their dramatic arc comprises fearing settling down and then finally (sort of) dealing with that fear. It's a simplistic plot, to say the least. But the ways in which the movie almost accidentally shows the two main characters bonding, breaking apart and reconciling are quite similar to Old Joy. Like Tanya and Mark, Michael (Braff) and his girlfriend Jenna (Jacinda Barrett) are expecting a baby, and Jenna is anxious for Michael to settle into their home life. In a number of sweet scenes, Jenna and Michael act out the rituals of couplehood--sharing a two-seated couch by companionably draping their bodies over each other, or bickering in the doorway to the bathroom as someone brushes their teeth.

Then, however, a rift forms between Michael and Jenna after he dabbles with a flirtatious co-ed. Interestingly, the way Michael finally wins Jenna back in the film's end is not with some grand scheme concocted with his buddies, perhaps involving running through airports with flowers in hand, but by camping out alone on their porch until she'll let him back in. His solitary humiliation, with only a thin blanket to protect him from a torrential down pour, is what finally wins over Jenna. In the simplest terms, he has shown her in a physical way that it's their bond that really matters. Turning away from previously paramount platonic friendships, whether on the trail or at the bachelor party, for favor of the binding of the romantic twosomes are these movies' corresponding happy endings.

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