- The Washington Times - Friday, August 30, 2002

''The Last Kiss" reveals the Italian writer-director Gabriele Muccino as a facile stylist and presumptuous equivocator in the course of a sometimes whirlwind comic scenario about infidelity and its discontents. While juggling a handful of imperiled conjugal or romantic relationships, Mr. Muccino pays calls on a wedding, a funeral and another wedding. The breathless, faithless tendencies that seem to preoccupy him are best summarized in a kiss-off line delivered by a character named Carlo (Stefano Accorsi) to an irresistible but also discardable temptation named Francesca (Martina Stella): "Goodbye, baby; forgive me if you can."

It would also suffice as the movie's motto. The filmmaker betrays a preference for beating hasty retreats from one domicile or subplot to the next when it might be more prudent and revealing to stay put and hash out the estrangement and complications at hand.

He gets a wrenching climactic payoff from the episode in which skittish Carlo, an advertising executive approaching his 30th birthday, is forced to defend himself against a proud and infuriated fiancee, Giulia (Giovanna Mezzogiorno, an emerging star), who has just discovered his fling with Francesca, an 18-year-old high schooler encountered at the first wedding ceremony.

The betrayal is aggravated by the fact that Giulia, Carlo's girlfriend for the past three years, is pregnant. Having satisfied his overwhelming yen for Francesca, Carlo runs back to Giulia and lies shamelessly to appease her. The most painful aspect of the confrontation is her need to weaken and forgive him. This haunting compromise suffers during an epilogue that mocks their reconciliation and insults Giulia with a sex-farce cliche.

Getaways are something of a booby trap for Mr. Muccino and his male characters, most of whom are plotting truancies or cop-outs of one kind or another. Carlo has an unhappily married friend and colleague named Adriano (Giorgio Pasotti) who is susceptible to the runaway scheme of two unmarried friends, Paolo and Alberto (Claudio Santamaria and Marco Cocci), who propose to buy a van and drive across Africa.

The fugitive inclinations of Carlo and his friends are incongruously echoed in Giulia's mother, Anna (Stefania Sandrelli, aging handsomely), who succumbs to recurrent, halfhearted impulses to walk out on her husband, Emilio (Luigi Diberti), a maddeningly imperturbable and undemonstrative shrink.

Moviegoers who go back a couple of generations with Italian movies will recognize affinities between the feckless young men satirized by Mr. Muccino and the small-town pals recalled by Federico Fellini in his semiautobiographical "I Vitelloni" almost 50 years ago. The new batch is far more affluent and appears to infest Rome, but their resistance to growing up is just as grotesque and lamentable.

The odd man out in their set is the bridegroom of the first wedding sequence, Mario, who later speaks out for stability but remains a marginal character. He and his bride seem to be neglected evangelists for traditional outlooks; their would-be consoling remarks, such as, "Normality is the true revolution" and "Fidelity is the new utopia," fall on deaf ears.

Mr. Muccino scampers between the compulsive fugitives, beginning and concluding with Carlo as his narrator and protagonist but shelving him for considerable periods while keeping tabs on the chorus of malcontents. His scampering is pictorially fleet and amusing. He already appears to be a stylistic virtuoso when eavesdropping on agitated and wrangling characters.

The problem is that he hasn't quite decided what he wants to make of these disputes or whose side he prefers to favor. The ironic balance that Jean Renoir achieved in "The Rules of the Game," summarized in the famous line, "Everyone has his reasons," remains an elusive goal in "The Last Kiss." Mr. Muccino clearly regards the philandering young men as specimens of arrested development and futility but doesn't want to concede the moral high ground to their consorts.

After all, Adriano might have to reconcile himself to life with a hair-trigger shrew. And how wise has Giulia been to postpone the subject of marriage during three years with Carlo? It seems a pity no one brings that up, because Carlo seems to be taking advantage of a significant loophole in their relationship.

Of course, if Mr. Muccino plans frequent updates of the evolving Italian courtship and matrimonial scene, it may prove both entertaining and edifying to see where his characters take us. "The Last Kiss" is certainly a vivid and adroit introduction to a promising humorist.


**1/2

TITLE: "The Last Kiss"

RATING: No MPAA rating (adult subject matter, consistent with the R category; frequent profanity and sexual candor; interludes of simulated intercourse)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Gabriele Muccino. Cinematography by Marcello Montarsi. In Italian with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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