Thursday, October 19, 2006

Early in “The Last Kiss,” a young lady observes, “Everyone I know is having a crisis. I know you’re not supposed to have them till midlife, but I think something’s happened to our metabolisms.”

The movie is a dud, but the remark hits a nerve. In fact, it may be the signature line in a series of recent films that look at the changing ways in which twentysomethings deal with the looming clouds of adulthood. Splitting the difference between the rite-of-passage tale and the midlife-crisis story, these films reflect much of the current generation of young adults’ resistance to the obligations and responsibilities of maturity.

Reacting to the increasing instability of work, romantic relationships, and marriage as traditional social norms and roles dissolve, these films capture an essential uncertainty about how — or even if — one ought to progress beyond the consequence-free frivolity of childhood. Tentative, anxious and obsessively self-analytical, these quarter-life-crisis movies embody the self-contradiction of their generation: They’re coming of age films about the refusal to come of age.

“The Last Kiss” is the most irritating of the bunch, but in many ways it is also the most representative. Starring sensitive-guy heartthrob Zach Braff as the passive, man-child Michael, it treads in similar territory as Mr. Braff’s 2004 indie hit “Garden State.” Like that film, it is explicit in dealing with the anxieties of growing up today.

The movie follows four self-involved young men leading lives of consumerist middle class luxury as they react to a series of romantically induced existential crises. Each crisis is different, but the essence is the same: The young men are asked to give up their attachment to juvenile ways and begin the process of building stable adult lives. Predictably, none of the foursome wants any part of it, and all of them resort to acting out in various ways: affairs with younger women, impulsive purchases — one simply walks out on his wife and child.

The film seems to think of itself as a stern rebuke to such behavior, but it plays into exactly the sort of self-deluded narcissism it intends to criticize. For in the end, it lets all of the young men off the hook with little in the way of serious consequences. Two simply disappear on a spontaneous road trip; another opts not to work things out with his wife. Michael’s final act, intended to show that he’s changed his ways, is little more than a stunt pulled to get back in the graces of the woman he cheated on. He’s learned how to manipulate others for his own gain, but doesn’t acknowledge the daily sacrifices required to maintain a relationship.

Michel Gondry’s surrealist head-trip “The Science of Sleep” tells a similar tale of a smart, sensitive young man who longs for the privileges of adulthood but can’t deal with the accompanying responsibilities. Mr. Gondry’s wondrous film tracks the romantic and career ambitions of Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal) as they play out both in real life and in meticulously constructed dream sequences.

Unlike “The Last Kiss,” “Sleep” is painfully honest about its protagonist’s inability to deal with the requirements of adult life. An artist with a penchant for shocking paintings and oddball inventions, Stephane longs both for a relationship with the girl in the neighboring apartment and to dump the drudgery of his job in calendar typesetting to pursue his quirky art.

From the very beginning, the movie paints him as childish: He relies on his mother to find him a job, moves back into his toy-filled childhood bedroom, and is greeted by a housekeeper who says, “You’re almost a man now.” Only able to function in his imagination, the movie hints that he finally recedes into a lush fantasy world free of dreaded responsibilities. Stephane’s compulsive creativity is portrayed as both a gift and a burden, giving him a tremendous imagination but also an inability to accept the bland routines and daily irritations of reality.

Director Andrew Bujalski’s “Mutual Appreciation” is a black-and-white, ultra-low-budget affair about a trio of tongue-tied post-collegiate New York hipsters who, like Stephane, struggle with their careers and love lives. It stars Justin Rice as Alan, a struggling rocker who, while trying to start up a music career and evade a day job (despite his father’s urging), begins to have feelings for his best friend Lawrence’s live-in girlfriend. Much of the film’s rambling, digressive dialog was improvised, and its stuttered parade of “ums,” “ahs,” and topical leaps capture the sort of vague conversations in which participants always seem to be talking about both everything at once and nothing at all.

Their tentative speech patterns are also a response to the difficulties of navigating the increasingly murky waters of interaction when time-honored social roles and rules fade away. Much of the film revolves around characters attempting to work out the status of their relationships, whether between friends and lovers or children and parents. The characters stumble over their words in part because no definitions yet exist for their relationships.

Just as Stephane created custom-crafted dream worlds to avoid reality, this refusal to accept typical relationship roles allows “Appreciation’s” characters to avoid the responsibilities that traditionally go with them. They don’t have to play by the rules because they don’t acknowledge they exist.

The lush period grandeur of Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” may seem an odd match to the rest of the films, but, like the others, it is a tale of privilege and obligation thrust upon reluctant young adults. As the queen of France, the responsibilities forced upon Antoinette are surprisingly familiar. She may not have to get a day job, but she faces the burden of royal duties with their endless rituals and ceremonies.

Like Alan and Stephane, Antoinette receives strong parental pressures to accept her obligations. Even her arranged marriage suffers from recognizable first-date awkwardness. As with the others, Antoinette’s response to all this is to flee — into constant partying at the royal retreat.

At the heart of each film lies an attempt to reconcile adulthood with an all-encompassing lifestyle consumerism. Whether in Antoinette’s constant lavish purchases, which are portrayed like mall spending sprees, or in the name-brand luxury that dominates “The Last Kiss,” these films sketch young people so enveloped by the endless temptations of consumer-driven society that they seem flummoxed by any privilege that requires real sacrifice.

The quarter-life-crisis films capture a generational disappointment with an adult world that does not match the gleeful frivolity of youth. For the privileges of age come with responsibilities, commitments and consequences. And, as the doomed Marie Antoinette finally discovers, eventually those consequences come knocking, with their accumulated unpleasant realities in tow.

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